Thursday Poem: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Thursday rolls round again, and I am on hand once more to talk about poetry. This time, I don’t have a poem to share online – I read from an actual book of pages, if you can believe it, Derrick C. Brown’s Strange Light – but I started reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass again, and I have to talk about it. I started reading it some time ago, but stopped, as I am liable to do at any given moment and flick to any of the other half dozen books I’m currently in the middle of finishing. Sadly, however, I didn’t return to it.

Then, last night, in honour of Robin Williams, I watched Dead Poets Society again and Whitman is quoted liberally in the film. So this morning, I picked it up again. I’ve picked up a habit recently of writing out any quotes or passages from books I can enjoy – partly because I might write about it later, and so it’s of practical use to me, and partly because writing out great passages is both joyous and instructive. Ray Bradbury used to say that’s how he learned to write best, he’d write out whole chunks of his favourite novels, and thereby ingest some of the internal rhythm and structure of beautiful writing in an organic fashion.

So, as I began to read it, I started writing some of the things down. Very quickly, quotes became paragraphs, became whole sections of pages and now I think I’m hitting a point where I’ll have to stop, lest I transcribe it in its entirety. My goodness, this book is something else. I am not reading it; I am experiencing it – it’s like feeling someone light the stars in your universe, like a constellation map of my soul. He knew. He fucking knew, and wrote it down, and thank fuck for that, because in these pages – these universe spanning pages – he has written everything I hope to be, the delirious ideal to which I hold myself, to which I aspire. Of great poets, and expectation, he writes:

The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes…but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

He goes on to address the hows of it – which is to say, there is none. Anyone who tells you poetry should rhyme, or should be free verse, or this, or that, is a fool. The container is of little import; focus on the spirit, the pulp and flesh and essence, pour it in until your container, your structure, is full to bursting with it:

Poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul.

That he has a high opinion of the role of the poet, of the poet’s ability goes without saying. Would that we still held it today at large; we would be better for it, of that there is no doubt. Something that struck me in the very first pages should be held close to all, should be scrawled across our buildings, should be in our papers, and our schools:

The largeness of nature of the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.

We are monsters without compassion, and the larger the nation, the more horrifying the concept becomes. For Australia especially, with its regular dehumanizing and barbaric treatment of refugees, I find this to be so very pertinent. Ours are a cruel people, 70% of whom, despite knowing that innocent women and children are attempting to commit suicide, to die rather than suffer our mistreatment, have still said they support harsher treatment for refugees. Think on it long and hard and know that such meanness and selfishness makes our nation no larger than a coffin harbouring a ghoul. We can be so much more than that.

I won’t leave you on that dour note. Let’s go back to his more grandiose notions, his rapturous proclamations as to the ‘great poet’, this indelible figure, this potentiality inside all of us, edited together in some of my favourite lines:

The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy. In war he is the most deadly force of the war; he can make every word he speaks draw blood. He is no arguer; he is judgment. He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing. He sees eternity in men and women. His love above all love has leisure and expanse. His experience and the showers and thrills are not for nothing. Nothing can jar him…suffering and darkness cannot– death and fear cannot. The sea is not surer of the shore or the shore of the sea than he is of the fruition of his love and of all perfection and beauty. 

I feel these lines like a balm, a soothing salve. This is what we should be. This is what we can be, and will be. This is the standard to which we, poets, mere mortals all of us, should stretch to achieve. Achieving it is not so important – it is the act of stretching itself, pushing and pulling the substance of yourself to encompass all that you can, that is great. How dull, how boring, how terribly disappointing if, in light of your unending potential, you live your life without even trying, without even reaching for something beyond yourself, some infinity, some unknown – if you die compressed, never realising how much further you could have gone.

Fucking LIVE, you miserable sacks of cynicism, you allergic-to-sincerity-and-earnest-joy motherfuckers. Live. Stretch. And you too will be a poem, perhaps read aloud in a great voice, or mumbled feverishly in the dark, or caressed between worn pages, or held in the chest of another – unspoken but known in your entirety.

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

You know what the craziest fucking thing is? I’m barely past his introductory preamble. Try to fathom that for a minute, and then, if you haven’t got this book, go out and fucking get it.

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