Nothing That Has Ceased to Arrive
The poet who carried his glowing sheaf of pages across Brooklyn Heights sometime during the late spring of 1855 had a third grade education, if the endless recitation of drills that comprised Brooklyn public schooling in the 1830s can be called that. At eleven, around the age when many boys of his era began to learn a trade, Walt Whitman had apprenticed to a printer, and later worked as a printer/journalist, a common combination at the time, as well as doing stints as an itinerant schoolteacher, a carpenter, and a bookseller. When he entered the printing office of the Rome brothers—two Scots printers who’d known Whitman since the 1840s—at the corner of Fulton and Cranberry Streets, he was thirty-six, had published some forgettable poems and windy prose, including a hackneyed temperance novel and some melodramatic short stories, and there was nothing in the world to make one suspect that he carried the great American poem of his century under his arm.
Sketchy credentials are not entirely rare among poets. Many are autodidacts; they read voraciously because they want to, looking to widen their field of vision, seeking any possible thing they can use for their art. The development of a poet is seldom marked by a steady, even progress. Take Whitman’s contemporary Emily Dickinson: reading her early work in chronological order, one finds almost uniformly sweet early Victorian verse, neatly rendered, girlish. Then, seemingly out of nowhere appears “Safe in their alabaster chambers…”, a magisterial, startlingly weird lyric, as allusive, accomplished and compelling as any she ever composed. Then she promptly goes back to parlor verse. Go figure.
Still, one would think there would be something in the early work of Walt Whitman to suggest the power, intelligence, luminosity and sly wit of the pages he carried under his arm. In truth nothing at all predicts the formal and linguistic inventiveness ahead; nothing makes us suspect that this man would reinvent American poetry. He would pay to publish his book, and write most of the reviews of it himself, sell precious few (if, in fact, any) copies, and then go right to publishing a second edition. “The proof of a poet,” he wrote in the preface to the first edition, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it”—a statement he’d revise, in a subsequent edition, to “his country will someday absorb him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” He was right. Who’d have thought it would be a book that we have never finished reading, a book that would be translated into every language in which poetry might be read, a book people scattered around the globe are holding at the moment you read this page? One he never finished writing, but simply revised and expanded until it was stretched, some thirty years later, into a lumpen thing, almost beyond recognition. A book of presumption and daring, expansiveness and wild ambition—one with antecedents, yes, but nonetheless entirely original, unlike anything that had come before.
So where on earth did it come from?
You can ask that question of any poem, and one inevitable answer is a simple one: work. No made thing springs up unbidden; even those that seem to: the poem that simply announced itself to the intoxicated Coleridge, or the musical composition that sprung full blown into the head of Mozart, as he stepped up from a carriage after a satisfying dinner. Years of work are present in the outpouring of a moment, subsumed into what seem gestures that simply pour from the hand of the maker, so long-schooled those hands have become.
But work accounts for a poem of genius about as much as plumbing accounts for the fountains of Rome; it yields a basis, the practical scaffolding that underlies the whole, but it cannot in itself engender a sense of transport. Or, to shift the figure from water to another element: labor may give a poem a ruddy glow, but no amount of it will set the page on fire.
And Leaves of Grass is spectacularly, uniquely on fire. It proceeds with absolute confidence to make the wildest claims; it invents a cosmogony, a theology, a stance toward reality; it burns with an evangelical urgency yet insists that no one requires a spiritual teacher; it is so formally anomalous that its first readers must have wondered if it could be called poetry at all. This combination of unbridled content and unfamiliar form seems to have left even some readers of undeniable genius in the dust. Emily Dickinson, famously, took a peek inside and then firmly closed the book; Henry James noted, with devastating simplicity, “This will not do.”
The magnificent anarchist’s bomb that is “Song of Myself” fills 65 pages, in the 1855 edition, divided into stanzas but without section breaks, and it has no title; the reader’s tossed headlong into a seemingly endless text in which it’s nearly impossible to get our bearings—an overpowering, commanding outpour of words. The author’s name isn’t even given on the spine or the opening pages of the book; we have to read some five hundred lines in to find Walt Whitman referring to himself by name. Imagine self-publishing your first book and not putting your name on it!
But Whitman had a reason for this. Asked about it years later by his young secretary/amanuensis Horace Traubel, the elderly Walt replied, “It would have been like putting a name on the universe.“ In other words, he is not, at least in the usual sense of the term, the author, or at least not entirely so; the poem is a kind of collaboration, and Whitman believed wholeheartedly that it was given to him.
The first source of “Song of Myself,” as well as many of the radiant poems that would follow it, must have been an experience of a transforming character, one that changed Whitman’s life, loosened the doors from their jambs, and made him understand what it was to be “myself” in an entirely new light. Call this a mystical experience, a peak experience, a moment of the dissolution of ego boundaries and of the sense of being held in place by space and time; when Whitman says in his preface the poet “glows a moment on the extremest verge,” I believe that this is what he meant.
A poetry reader of the 1850s would expect to find stanzas of a regular length, set in a fixed pattern, and line-lengths also neatly regular in their appearance—especially since their length was generally determined by meter; a ten-syllable line varies, obviously, in the number of characters it may contain, but it only varies so far. Even if a mid-19th century poem appeared with varying line-lengths, a reader would expect to find these variations occurring within the comfortable strictures of a repeating, numerically determined pattern.
But Whitman’s lines would appear, to such a reader, ragged, unkempt, unpredictable. They offer a quick jab of an assertion (I celebrate myself, for instance) then sprawl out so far that they behave as if there is no right-hand margin to the page, so that they must be wrapped on and on into the indeterminate space of what would usually be the next line. The page is strangely awash in white space, so that, in a way, you can almost see that glow on the opening page of Whitman’s book. Here it is, with the line- and stanza-breaks of the type he set himself, and with the eccentric ellipses that characterize this edition, which run from three to as many as eight periods, as if to orchestrate the pauses, or to suggest the gathered magnitude of what has been left out or cannot be rendered into speech. It seems to me as if light is pouring through this page, as if the words there are nearly tattered and burned by it, surrounded are they by a ferocious solar illumination.
I am aware that I make a claim the historian cannot validate, and that I commit the literary sin of inferring from the work back to the life. Such a mode of reading is discredited because it undercuts the power of artifice, suggesting that only someone who had this particular sort of experience could write about it, and because it suggests that the life of the writer is knowable through that writer’s creations, which we understand to be an iffy proposition.
But there remains the fact that no one has written about visionary experience in the sustained, utterly convincing way that Whitman has; there are radiant moments in Rilke, Proust and Flaubert in which the division between subject and object goes dissolving away, bringing the speaker to a barely communicable joy, and you can find luminous traces of this state of mind in the ecstatic poetry of many traditions, but I can think of no writer who ever held this light up as long and as steadily as Whitman did. There are no contemporary accounts of his experience, no prose journal; the evidence lies in the poem itself and the way it radiates an experience of the unbounded like no other, which is one reason Emerson called Leaves of Grass “a cross between the New York Herald and the Bhagavad Gita.” In what came to be Section Five, Whitman tells us what happened to him in a startlingly clear way.
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best.
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
You can feel the hand of Whitman the printer placing his stanza breaks with great deliberateness; in this white space he is thinking, shifting gears, preparing his next move. The opening statement, with its direct address to the soul, is of a piece with what’s come before in the poem so far— rhetorical, effusive, not grounded in any particular moment or place; the poem’s been more in the nature of a rhetorical performance, more oration than narrative. But look what happens now, in the two stanzas that complete this brief section.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gentle turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my head, and reach’d till you held my feet.
This is the first story told in “Song of Myself,” and thus the first in Leaves of Grass, and it’s placed here for a reason: it is the controlling narrative of the poem, the seed from which all the rest springs. Although the pronoun has not changed, the stanza-break just before How you settled your head invites us to at least consider the idea that “you” in this stanza is no longer the soul, but a full-bodied other. Or is “my soul” suddenly revealed to be an endearment, a term of love for the other? Or a term of identification? Whatever the case, “you” is certainly embodied now, and positioned, in a surprisingly direct passage, to kiss the speaker’s bare chest, and for oral sex. If one hand holds the feet and the other the beard, it’s pretty clear where the head must be, which lends a whole new dimension to Loose the stop from your throat; the valves of the voice will open, it seems, in more than one way.
Now comes another stanza break loaded with event and unspoken meaning. Something takes place—tender sex, presumably, of a sort that ushers the speaker into a remarkable experience of elevation and identification with all things.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
Surely that is one of the most beautiful sentences in American poetry, and also one of the most confident sentences in any poem in English. The mere fact that it is a single sentence suggests authority, since it never hesitates, and while it includes the phrase “I know” twice, in fact every single thing named is an instance of something the speaker knows, with certainty, from the heightened perspective the thrall of this experience has granted him. He moves sweepingly from sex to knowledge and kinship to God, and from there to all men and women, and from there to all of creation. If the passage ended there, I would not be so inclined to believe him, but there is something ineluctably right about the astonishing diminuendo that follows Whitman’s announcement that one of the very structural elements of the universe is love; he turns from the grandest announcement to the tiniest things, and the drooping leaves and ants and mossy scabs are swept up in that love, too, illuminated by the compassionate knowledge that has flooded the poet’s body. Through the body, it seems, the poet has been granted the gift of unlimited vision, of a profoundly felt kinship not only with the divine, and with other people, but with every element of creation.
I have been teaching for many years, and while my classes center on poetry and not mystical experience (a term I avoid for its breadth and mistiness, though I seem unable to find any satisfying substitute), it isn’t uncommon for conversation to touch on such matters. Poetry exists, after all, to find words for that which is unsayable, or resistant to easy naming; we are most often driven to poetry when any other sort of language seems incapable of the work we require of it.
And I have found, when I mention such experiences of ego-dissolution, or boundlessness, or a sense that “I” is not the single me cordoned off from the world by my own angular or rounded edges, but in fact an expression or focal point of a larger field of being—well, I find that my students tend to nod appreciatively, or indicate a certain degree of recognition, as opposed to the kind of silence likely to indicate that they think I’ve lost my mind.
I have not experienced what Whitman did, not that order of grace or that degree of realization, but I have sometimes slipped the bonds of myself. The most powerful of these experiences happened when I was eighteen, when I’d been trying on various kinds of spiritual practice, both because I had a hunger for them and because it was in the cultural air I was breathing, in 1970. I was eager, too, to escape from a difficult family scene, and some stubborn part of me was refusing to be held down or diminished by the grief and damage in the household within which I sometimes lived. But I can’t see the experience I had in the mountains above Tucson that year in psychological terms; I will not allow it to be seen as a symptom of anything. I know that it is possible to confuse symptoms and blessings, but I’m as certain as Walt Whitman in the three stanzas above that what I experienced was real, and came from what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Ruth and I had driven up into the Catalinas, to escape the heat. We’d stopped perhaps halfway up, at a picnic site by the side of the road; there were tables among the dry pines, and open areas where one might spread a blanket and lie down under the branches and the sky with its few big shining clouds, and not a soul there but us. We were easy in our relationship at that moment; I was trying on heterosexuality, she was liking having a young boyfriend, we enjoyed each other’s company. We’d brought a cooler with sandwiches and a jug of ice tea or lemonade, maybe we had a beer; I think I remember a red blouse she wore, in a sort of peasant style, and I remember, after eating a little and talking, I lay on my back on the blanket.
As I lay resting, my eyes half open, I became aware of a young tree, a shapely fir a few yards from the edge of our quilt. It was perhaps my height. As I took it in I began to sense it had a kind of presence about it; it was there, a “being” in the world, if that makes any sense. I mean that I felt its presence in myself, and in some interior fashion which involved a gesture of consciousness, I acknowledged its presence.
And then the tree acknowledged me back. I wasn’t expecting that. It felt precisely as if the wave of interest and regard I had sent to the tree was returned to me, easily, simply; we were alive in the world together, the young tree and I; we were kin; we were centers of fierce energetic awareness in an energetic field…oh, the sense of it begins to slip away as the words multiply.
Try again: we were alive there, together, and we took pleasure in being aware of one another.
Part of that pleasure was a kind of delighted laughter, on my part.
Because what I had taken to be not alive, or at least not conscious, and not a part of myself, was, in fact, intently awake, and looking at me as I did at it, in friendship, in greeting, and I realized that every tree I could see in the pine grove was equally alive, and equally not apart from myself, not inert to me or apart from me as I had believed. We were here together, as were the clouds overhead, and the late sunlight slanting through the rims of them, and the pitchy fir cones resting on the pine-scented floor of shed needles…
And then a roaring began, in the treetops, as of wind, as if everything were stirring in a mounting storm that wasn’t there, and a great energy was stirring in me, an opening out, and I must have stirred or made some sound, because Ruth said something then, and I began to come back down into myself. Though not without a sense of shine to all things persisting and a great fresh happiness.
I feel no shred of embarrassment or discomfort in telling you this, save for this last part. Back in the car, driving down the mountain, Ruth said, I keep smelling incense. And I knew what she meant, because for me the air was perfumed with it too, the lovely ancient scent of sandalwood. Why should that detail embarrass me? I suppose because it seems to claim some external validation—we both smelled it—as though that were the point, to offer some proof of my joyous hour of grace. There’s no proving such things; they reside in subjectivity, are only there, in the way we know an hour or a few minutes; I have no idea how long that experience lasted. Maybe it’s that I don’t want the gift of sandalwood to seem like some special claim. I don’t mean to say I was privileged; I think such experiences are, actually, ordinary, available, though we pave over the way to them with so much distraction and tension and desire. It was simply something that happened to me; it came out of nowhere, and never returned in just that way again. For all I know the odor of sandalwood may be latent everywhere, waiting to be noticed.
Place in evidence this photograph. It was taken by a Brooklyn photographer, probably one Gabriel Harrison, in 1854. It’s a daguerreotype, which means that the subject would have needed to hold this position for two minutes, in order to avoid blurring. Look at this face, and imagine that length of holding still, holding this expression.
Or imagine, perhaps, this expression on your own face at all. We know instinctively how to convey all sorts of emotion through facial expression, but this one—what can it mean, what does it read? I would say first of all that it is a face that looks very far beyond the minutes in which the picture was taken; that gaze is not directed toward the photographer, but instead arrives in the present from a considerable distance. As I look from the eyes to the slight smile and then back to the eyes again, it seems to me that the distance between this face and everything else is lit up by love; it is a look that pours out compassion, and perhaps betrays a certain weariness or impatience with the surface of things that is softened by the profound tenderness that pours forward from the face. Its riveting power—its power to hold and hold our attention—lies in the eyes, which are clear, magnetic, and look through us to something beyond the viewer. Often 19th century portrait photographs have a kind of somnolence about them, a sense that the subject is sealed off from us, entombed by the image, a captive of time lost. Not this one. There is nothing over about this face, nothing that has ceased to arrive in the present.
I wanted to see the original, which is housed in the Rare Book Room at the New York Public Library, but when I went to make an appointment to view it I discovered that the piece is no longer available to researchers; it is so delicate that it cannot be exposed to light or to the wear and tear of handling. Daguerreotypes are made on sheets of silvered copper with a mirror surface; the image, composed of darkened areas on the metal, is so fragile it can be rubbed away with a fingertip. Perhaps the conservators of Rare Books view the image from time to time, as they check its condition in its metal casing, or its black velvet vault, but it seems that no one else does.
The other day I was near the Library, in Bryant Park, and despite the fact that I knew the photograph probably isn’t actually in the Rare Book Room at all, but sequestered in some storage facility someplace—under the park, or off in northern New Jersey?—I felt the pull of it anyway. I wanted to go to the Rare Book Room, and just sit at one of the tables there, and perhaps rest my head on my arms, on the wooden surface before me, with my eyes closed, and imagine the face beaming that indelible gaze toward me. Well, delible, as it turns out—at least in its original form—but even in its reproductions, even in dilution, incapable of being erased.