My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Whitman is one of those writers whose merits can get lost in their reputations; you forget how good he is when you’re not reading him. His role as the mascot of a kind of kitschy Americana—especially ridiculous in this time of decline and fragmentation—overshadows his saving weirdness, his poetic originality:
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid . . . . nothing could overlay it;
For it the nebula cohered to an orb . . . . the long slow strata piled to rest it on . . . . vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
While this evokes Whitman’s whole cosmo-ethico-politico position—roughly, a bright pantheism in which all that lives shares in the divine, mixed with a gnosticism that says each soul is eternal—anybody can have a homespun theology; but not everybody can imagine their own soul as an embryo existing from the beginning of the universe and carried reverently in the mouth of a dinosaur till it could be implanted in a womb.
There is plenty of sermonizing and exhortation here, best experienced as the expression of a mood, a sensibility:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud
My favorite thing about this poem, though, is less its metaphysics or its politics than its sly humor—
And as to you corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweetscented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips . . . . I reach to the polished breasts of melons.
—its vague but unmistakable eroticism—
Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.
—its anthology of flash-fiction-like “cases,” of various people from spinsters to slaves to a naval crew at war to northern hunters that Walt sympathizes with—
I anchor my ship for a little while only,
My messengers continually cruise away or bring their returns to me.
I go hunting polar furs and the seal . . . . leaping chasms with a pike-pointed staff . . . . clinging to topples of brittle and blue.
I love the consonance and assonance and alliteration, the subtle rhythms, that keep the free verse from falling into prose. I love Whitman more as the inspirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins than as that of Allen Ginsberg. This poem seems like an effusion, is pitched as a “barbaric yawp,” but is a careful sport with words and as much the utterance of a dramatic character—”Walt Whitman, American, one of the roughs, a cosmos”—as it is any kind of polemic, an examination of the artistic character, the veiled soul, the voyeur at the boys in the river, God’s spy. He seems to want to redefine poetry so that it is a fierce bodily communion, as here—
You there, impotent, loose in the knees, open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you,
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,
I am not to be denied . . . . I compel . . . . I have stores plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow.
It is you talking just as much as myself . . . . I act as the tongue of you,
It was tied in your mouth . . . . in mine it begins to be loosened.
—but the fact is that—
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.
A great poem: “My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality…” How much more interesting the questions than the answers.