Sunday, November 28, 2010

Foofoos and Scrofula

Page 28 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass is a wonder. Walt Whitman the writer has had his poetic voice driving to a point such as this:
What behaved well in the past or behaves well today is not such a wonder,
The wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel.
Don't misunderstand: I am not saying that Whitman has purposely been leading to this specific moment, that there has been a single and set teleology to all that has come before.

Rather, I see the poem and the poet as articulating more haphazardly. Both poem and poet explode with names and classifications. Everything in, out, above, and across America and "man" becomes part of the articulation.

Yet, with that quote above, I read the poet as unraveling these classes. We call a man "mean." We call her or him an "infidel." But how can this be? I don't think the poet accepts these categories, or at least their signifying limitations.

The poet seems to admire the sciences and recognizes they necessarily place classifications and limitations in the world. But these classes and limits are not all, and the poet has no obligation to them other than to love them:
Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!
Fetch stonecrop and mix it with cedar and branches of lilac;
This is the lexicographer or chemist . . . . this made a grammar of the old cartouches,
These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas,
This is the geologist, and this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.

Gentlemen I receive you, and attach and clasp hands with you,
The facts are useful and real . . . . they are not my dwelling . . . . I enter by them to an area of the dwelling.
If the sciences are houses, the poet--and people generally--lives elsewhere. The houses of the sciences are the antechambers of the larger house the poet explores.

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