Walt Whitman illustration used for the first edition of Leaves of Grass.
A few weeks ago, as I wrote in the Tending A Difficult Garden challenge, something leapt hard when I read something musician Brian Eno said in an interview about our the horizon which looms ahead:
I can’t conceive of a future where there isn’t a threat. I think we’re in for a hard ride for maybe half a century. Then it will either be the end of civilization or a reborn humanity with a different set of ideas about who we are and where we belong and how we must relate to things in order to survive.
What he said defined a border around the near future I’ve been unable or unwilling to see — 50 years or so of incredibly difficult in a world changing too fast to properly notice much less aptly address by the 3 million years of human evolution. that lead up to 150 years of fossil fuel dependence.
Is it truly too difficult to imagine, as if some black impenetrability has become the walled garden of all we fear will happen next?
Is it that much like death?
Or do we just lack the poetry for seeing through it?
First, the threat — dark, impending, certain. It’s like a slow-motion car accident where you see fate arriving at an instant expanding with immense slowness. It’s not easy living in a modernity that has invoked geologic timescales with massive hammers of manic consumption. (We used to call it the Anthropocene two or three heartbeats ago, about the time that climate change denial became the pathology of privilege.)
Tipping points burst across the globe. Regarding the collapse of biodiversity, a recent study found that vertebrate populations tracked since 1970 have declined, on average, more than two thirds. This past year, heatwaves destroyed crops and dried rivers from China to Europe, and drought has brought millions close to starvation in the Horn of Africa. Floods in Pakistan affected 33 million. The Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers in Antarctica are melting at their fastest rate in 5,500 years, and the melting ice could lead to more than 11 feet of sea level rise over the next several hundred years.
When UN chief Antonio Guterres opened the recent climate summit in Egypt, he told world leaders that humanity faces a stark choice between working together against global warming or “collective suicide.” The latest IPCC report on climate impacts was dubbed an “atlas of human suffering.” These in a world which has warmed from 1.1C from the 1950 baseline to 1.2C in the past 10 years. (Few now believe the world will be able to stop global warming at 1.5C)
And the collective response? Here it’s lots of Christmas shopping by folks who can’t move to hot zones fast enough. Swampland developments break out like hives across my state of Florida. My little town is supposed to double in size over the next 10 years as retirees buy up oversized houses in gated communities so far from our New England style downtown I doubt they’ll ever bother to come in and see it. It’s like humanity decks its impending condemnation with merry tree-lights.
Maybe it’s different for you (besides living in Florida, I don’t have kids), but I see the crossroads as already past, which brings me to the second point, that time is now deep into the crash, something happening so fast and so widely that living generations today can neither imagine it or respond to it. To put it succinctly, we’re fucked. Unliveable real estate, financial collapse, social unrest, governments failing, power grids going dark — who knows.
My purpose here is not to revel in dystopia or pine for utopia, but rather to ask what kind of poet or poetry can sing the middle course, offering an imaginative ground for developing ideas about ourselves and how we relate to each other so we can sink sufficient roots for the storm already begun and help the Earth survive. I’m not sure we can survive it as a species — or much of the rest of life — but while there’s even a tiny possibility of air and juice, it’s our job to lung and liver it as best we can.
Last time facing this question I used the metaphor of tending a difficult garden. Now I wonder what kind of poet (or poetics) it will take to sing it.
One model perhaps is the American poet of the 19th century, Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, was so radical compared to other poetry of the day (even from his own early poetry) that represented a transformation of poetic mind. Emily Dickenson in her brooding solitude was similar in this.
Some say Whitman was inspired to replicate the calling of Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which Whitman had heard a series of lectures by the transcendentalist in March 1842. A passage from “The Poet” is striking:
Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
Leaves of Grass seems stamped from that inspiration, and some scholars believe Whitman spent the years preceding the first edition perfecting an emulating style. But there’s also evidence that Whitman wrote the twelve poems that comprise the first edition in “a hurricane of the spirit,” as Rilke once put it; the lack of surviving manuscripts does suggest such a mantic transcription. Leaves of Grass breaks forth with the suddenness of revelation, like St. Peter after being struck by a bolt by God:
I cannot be awake, for nothing looks to me as it did before,
Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been
a mean sleep.
My guess is that Leaves was the product both of the skilled craftsman and inspired poet. But whatever the mix, Whitman emerged with an intoxicating new free verse style that was both omniscient and omnivorous, weirdly scriptural and vernacular at once. All things together was the command of poetry Whitman emerged with. “I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am an encloser of things to be,” he writes in “Song of Myself.”
A poet for all humanity, Whitman was also a poet for all of the Earth. His embrace of it is carnal and deeply emotional. This, from “Song of Myself”:
Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunsets—earth of the mountains misty top!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth—rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
The intent of Leaves of Grass apparently was to heal American divisions festering and darkening at the time. A high bar indeed for a country which had not heard yet its definitive poetry! Whitman stated in preface to the first edition that the proof of a poet was that his country absorbed him as he had absorbed it. America wasn’t buying it, sales of Leaves was dismal and it was roundly vilified by critics as both lunatic and obscene.
The reaction was not surprising. Apprise this snippet from “I Sing The Body Electric” for rural sensibilities of nineteenth-century America :
This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor,
all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected
of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused,
mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling |
and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love,
white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
A review in the June 6, 1860 edition of in The Springfield Republican was typical:
Now Walt Whitman is par excellence the “poet of nature.” In his pure taste there is nothing unclean, because nothing seems unclean. Nature has free course in him, and runs and is glorified in all its issues. Those passions which degrade men and lead to nine-tenths of the crime of the world, he exalts. Those appetites which only a pure, true and life-long love can hallow, are with him appetites to be cherished and fed — no matter about the love. It ought to be enough for Walt Whitman, if he honestly thinks his book a pure one, to know that the pure in society will shun it, and that it will be sought out and laughed over by lewd women and prurient boys and hoary-headed old lechers, — to know that this notice of his volume will stir to read it only the dregs of the social and moral world into which it goes. That settles the question. (Source: The Whitman Archive)
Whitman’s homoerotic yearnings were so off the radar of the time that their abundant evidence were hardly visible to his critics. (The word “homosexual” didn’t even enter common usage until the late 19th century.)
But then came the true obscenity, the Civil War, a catastrophe that killed up to a million soldiers, civilians on battlefields, cities and in prisons, with more than 500,000 of those bodies Whitman so praised living on brutally ripped and sundered. One in 13 veterans were amputees.
Whitman entered that fray first seeking his brother George who had been reported injured fighting the Union in the Battle of Fredricksburg. His brother had survived (and would 20 more major battles, a miracle), but what Whitman saw in a nearby field hospital nearly vanquished his poetry: a pile of amputated limbs.
Where the earlier poems of Drum-Taps (his 1865 collection of Civil War-themed poems) celebrated the martial thunder of Union victory, Whitman’s outlook changed dramatically after Fredricksburg and he began volunteering as a nurse, making, by his own estimate, some 600 hospital visits and offering individual care to more than 100,000 wounded soldiers from both sides of the war. He took note of their individual needs (fanning the face of this one, offering sweets to another, writing a letter or reading from the classics (though never his own poetry — a true gesture of humility and service?) What Whitman did was redeem the individual, if only for a moment, from the machinery of war which had turned a generation of young men into headstones.
The later poems in Drum-Taps express his changed awareness and role. “It became clear to Whitman even then that responding to such dehumanizing force would require a different sort of writing, not the barbaric yawper preaching form roof-tops but the compassionate witness or ‘wound dresser’ turning to face the dying and the dead,” Robert Leigh Davis writes in “’The Mute Look that Rolls and Moves’: Walt Whitman’s Civil War.”
Whitman believed President Lincoln was the country’s savior; his Drum-Taps had just gone to press when his beloved leader was shot by John Wilkes Booth at a theater performance of a comedy, “Our American Cousin.” That bloody loss was the final sacrifice of total war. His poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” considered one the definitive American elegy, as Milton’s “Lycidas” is to English literature. Lincoln is never named; its theme is death, Whitman’s earth-centric conception of it, neglecting any mention of Christian:
… Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! O praise and praise,
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome? …
What was he now to do? Whitman had lived through the immense gulf of the war and taken intense notice of the face of suffering; he could either go silent or find a poetry for the survival of what Leaves of Grass intended — shriveled and maimed though it might be.
The ground he found did not change the style of the poetry but the need it addresses for a darker truth:
Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything.
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.
— “Shut Not Your Doors”
An 1866 edition of Leaves of Grass is considered the most chaotic, as Whitman tried to include his war-verse in varied editions, keeping them together, interspersing the poems and excluding them altogether. And 1871-2 edition of Leaves is a more comprehensive attempt to absorb the Civil War and the resulting difficulties of Reconstruction. and was complemented by the first edition of his poems printed in England, in 1868. The 1881 sixth edition of Leaves was a bulk of maturity; the 12 untitled poems covering 95 pages in the first edition had grown to 293 poems over 382 pages.
Over the decades Whitman relentlessly revised Leaves of Grass, rearranging, purging, pruning and re-writing, reformulating his poetic self. “His entire life, it seemed, may have been a demonstration of the power of personality, change and language,” Justin Kaplan writes in his excellent literary biography Walt Whitman: A Life (1980).
The final version published in 1892 (also known as the Deathbed Edition) is considered the definitive one. (Though some consider it bulked with lesser poems.) Whitman was bedridden for years as the result of several strokes but kept writing and holding court with his growing audience. (He was most popular with British writers from Swinburne and Hopkins to Oscar Wilde.)
In a poem included in the last edition (after being pulled from an earlier one, as if he was undecided about its message) Whitman turns from the division among men that had so afflicted the country in the Civil War to a much more disturbing them, the loss of connection between humans and their Earth — and offered his radical poetry as a means to link hands once again:
WHEN THE FULL GROWN POET CAME
WHEN the full-grown poet came,
Out spake pleased Nature (the round impassive globe, with all
its shows of day and night,) saying, He is mine;
But out spake too the Soul of man, proud, jealous and unreconciled,
Nay, he is mine alone;
—Then the full-grown poet stood between the two, and took
each by the hand;
And to-day and ever so stands, as blender, uniter, tightly holding hands,
Which he will never release until he reconciles the two,
And wholly and joyously blends them.
How does one properly sing the Earth in a changing world? For old Whitman (who was also an urbanite), it was both a resolution to hang in there with the difficulty and a dedication to crafting a language that speaks to hunman and nonhuman alike. It meant becoming willing to allow the Earth to speak in his voice — even privileging it over whatever had been best in literature — as here in “Has I The Choice,” included in an addendum titled “Sands At Seventy” in the final edition:
Had I the choice to tally greatest bards,
To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will,
Homer with all his wars and warriors—Hector, Achilles, Ajax,
Or Shakspere’s woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello—Tennyson’s fair ladies,
Metre or wit the best, or choice conceit to wield in perfect rhyme, delight of singers;
These, these, O sea, all these I’d gladly barter,
Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,
And leave its odor there.
We’ve learned much about the nonhuman world in the years since Whitman’s death, in 1892, at the age of 72. Our earth poets have learned to give voice to that with greater depth and fluency — Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, May Swenson and William Stafford (to that list I include our own Sherry Marr and Lindi-Ann Hewitt). Others found a way, also like Whitman, to stand outside and link hands in bitter weather and say clearly and cleanly what they found there — DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robinson Jeffers, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane and Allen Ginsburg. I also count CK Williams extending that long, long line, Sharon Olds for the carnality and Larry Leavis for the pure jazz of expression.
I find Whitman’s poetry at odds with poetry itself — to me he reads more like a journalist of poetry, having forsaken too much of its tradition — and yet, his radical formulations found a way for American poetry to finally find purchase in the canon of literature both domestically and abroad.
And as a guide for looking forward to the dark future which looms today, there are many reasons to look back to Whitman. He was of an extremely turbulent time in American history, living through its greatest nightmare to emerge on foundation which continues to inspire poets. His “language experiment” (as he put it) shows us how open the possibilities are for poetry — what comes next may be hardly recognizable by us but apt handles for the evolving truths of our coming age.
In an 1881 essay on “The Future of Poetry,” Whitman includes this telling quote from Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve:
Formerly, during the period termed classic, when literature was governed by recognized rules, he was considered the best poet who had composed the most perfect work, the most beautiful poem, the most intelligible, the most agree able to read, the most complete in every respect —the Aeneid, the Gerusalemme, a fine tragedy. Today, something else is wanted. For us, the greatest poet is he who in his works most stimulates the readers imagination and reflection, who excites him the most himself to poetize. The greatest poet is not he who has done the best ; it is he who suggests the most ; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, and who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your turn.
“Democracy waits the coming of its bards in silence and in twilight,” he concludes, “— but ‘tis the twilight of the dawn.” One literature dies, another waits to waken.
And let’s remember, Whitman is waiting for us and future poets, as he sings in “Poets to Come”:
POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
“Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined,” Whitman wrote in the preface of the first edition of Leaves. “The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet … he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson … he places himself where the future becomes present.”
For this week’s challenge, let’s channel Whitman by enquiring what tools of the poet must survive for poetry to flourish in the difficult future ahead. Must our language, diction, structures, conceits change? Will poetry become more local, global, or both? If a truly dark period is to come, how can poetry preserve itself? How would such a seed-bank be constructed? What will give the poet a voice in 2100 or 2200? What course can poetry lead between dystopian and utopian futures? How would an earth poem go in 50 years when the teeth of climate change have battened down hard and fast? Let’s play Emerson 2023 and name the future’s poet!
Earthweal will be taking a two-week holiday break from weekly challenges starting on Dec. 19, so I’ll keep the forum open until Jan. 2. Weekend open link forums will continue throughout.
Here’s to barbaric yawps and bodies electric making the future present and reconciling the worlds!
I will read this more throughly tomorrow, Brendan, am still dealing with vertigo. You raise some interesting questions. I am more than pleased to be added to such a prestigious list. Thank you. On the news right now, a major breakthrough – nuclear fusion energy, which produces astonishing amounts of energy without the drawbacks of nuclear power plants. But, as with everything, their target date of 2050 is far too far away for a planet already broiling. And today yet another small forest came down up the street because contractors prefer a dead bare landscape for ease of building, instead of placing a house amidst the trees, like they have done for centuries till everything became about ease of corporations, and profit. Sigh. The ironic thing is the owner of the site is also the District person in charge of developing a tree protection bylaw. Now we know why he has been dragging his heels with it.
Thanks Sherry, sorry about the vertigo, may you find the ground beneath your feet soon — It is encouraging about nuclear fusion as a great global energy source, but I hope we don’t race toward it piling up an even greater mound of spent devices. – Brendan
It is hailed as a clean energy source. “While there are different ways to try to produce nuclear fusion, scientists at the California lab used 192 lasers focused on the inner wall of a cylinder that contained a small capsule (about the size of a BB) of fusion fuel: deuterium and tritium.)” Sounds interesting, but everything takes too long to implement. Still dizzy. Sigh.