Monday, December 06, 2010

Reminder of Life


Continuing our study of Walt Whitman’s 1855 edition (the first) of Leaves of Grass, page 29 begins with the poet continuing to assert his work. The poet is a “reminder of life,” we learn on the previous page. On the current page, the idea of life is focused to virility and vitality, as the poet makes “short account of neuters and geldings” and instead favors “men and women fully equipped.” The poet is immersed in socio-political activity also. The poet himself beats “the gong of revolt” and participates in making plans with fugitives.

But our page is distinguished by the poet naming himself:
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.
With images of unlocking and opening doors moving next to bold assertions against degradation and for human connection, the poet claims the most audacious role in the American democracy:
I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
The poet again draws on lists and anaphora to explain his instrumental purpose, to make audible the repressed and oppressed sounds that animate America:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts . . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
I do not press my finger across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
These lists make the poet appear as a reflection of America. The poet is not only a painter of scenes or a smith of beautiful and polished artifacts. For this poet, life is generated and fueled everywhere, and even sex and death may be addressed freely.

The poet’s final claim of this remarkable page asserts the thorough divinity of the poet.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
The poet here authorizes and sanctifies his role. He is a priest of life, a prophet, and a miracle worker who transforms puritan angst into humanist piety.

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