February 4, 2022
Thanks to Jaya Upadhyay, a 2021 Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
What does a poet mean when he says, “I am not contained between my hat and boots,” but then adds, “If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles?” What does it mean to exist beyond the boundaries of one’s body while remaining retrievable from beneath one’s feet? What, more importantly, should a mind that has arrived at that knowledge pursue in his writings? Perhaps to transcend language itself? Walt Whitman’s poems “drift in lacy jags,” eliciting synaesthesia, or sensory overabundance. He writes each one as if it were his last, packing his universe of knowledge into each. Born in Long Island, the second of nine siblings, “the poet of the body and of the soul” experienced an early economic crisis in his family. Leaving formal education at the age of eleven and being forced to work odd jobs to support his family exposed him to reality without filters. Through his poems, he appears to be attempting to capture the universe in a glance, to take it in with a breath, and to taste it whole. His poems begin at the beginning, progress quickly, and end several poetic aeons later, with no gap between thought and form, nothing lost in translation, and no postscripts. Whitman was the poet of democracy not only because of his universal themes, but also because he did more than just record language. His poetry is a real-time dialogue between the poet, the reader, and the words themselves. As a result, reading his texts may feel like overhearing a conversation. His first book of poems, Leaves of Grass, published by himself in 1855, does not bear his name on the cover or even the first few pages. Years later, when asked about the omission by his friend Horace Traubel, he would respond, “it would have been like putting a name on the universe.”
What does the title Leaves of Grass mean? Is it linked to the body and the soul of which the poet sings? In “Song of Myself,” he writes that “grass” is the “uniform hieroglyphic,” “growing in both narrow and broad zones,” “the handkerchief of the lord,” and “the uncut hair of graves.” Grass is also the uniform hieroglyphic because it represents both ephemerality and permanence. The ephemerality of the world and everything contained within it, including one’s own form. When compared to a phrase in the Bible, it begins to make sense: “… grass of the field which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven.” Thus, all the objects of the world that we see, touch, taste, and smell are fleeting, existing for a brief moment before being lost in the vast infinity of the universe. Nonetheless, they must be recognised for as long as they exist. They exist as specimens of reality, coexisting with everything else and forming the substance of experience. It is only through names and forms that the transcendent becomes meaningful. It’s the same grass that grows under one’s boot soles, and it’s where Whitman wants to be found. For him, “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars.” Thus, he is not contained between his hat and boots, but everywhere else, because grass is almost everywhere, growing in both narrow and broad zones, humble and short-lived but unmissable.
Whitman writes from a place where the lines between subject and object appear to blur. The “I” that he employs frequently in this work, particularly in “Song of Myself,” appears to refer to a universal presence, an all-encompassing consciousness. The translations of vast Asian literatures, such as Buddhist and Vedanta texts, could have been the source of Whitman’s I awareness in his works. He was an avid reader of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he once stated that he was simmering and simmering until Emerson brought him to a boil. Emerson and other transcendentalists may have introduced him to Vedantic knowledge. One could imagine that there was already a simmering awareness of a limitless self in him, which, catalysed by Vedic knowledge, overflowed later in a towering sixty-one-page revelation as “Song of Myself.” It’s amazing how every time the speaker in the poem explains the I, it sounds like Lord Krishna(1) revealing himself to Arjuna the warrior in the Bhagavad Gita(2). He writes, “People I meet, the effect on me of my early life, the ward and city I live in, or the nation, … These come to me days and nights and go from me again, but they are not the Me myself.” Consider what Krishna says to Arjuna: “All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them. These creatures do not reside within me, and even though I bring them forth, I am not confined within them.” In another place, Whitman writes, “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself, (They do not know how immortal, but I do.)” It is similar to Krishna telling Arjuna, “You and I have passed many births Arjuna, you have forgotten but I remember them all. …My true being is unborn and changeless… I manifest myself in finite form through the power of my own Maya.” In fact, Emerson remarked that Leaves of Grass was a mixture of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. In a letter to Whitman, he said, “I give you joy of your free and brave thought. It gives me a lot of pleasure. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be.” As we turn the first page of his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, we find a portrait of him on the left, his eyes looking somewhere beyond the reader’s and the author’s spacetime. A picture that establishes him as the limitless field of awareness, standing apart from his work and simply being a witness to it.
He never becomes detached from the object of his poetry while standing apart from it. In fact, he lived a paradox in which he knew himself to be beyond himself but desired to remain incarnate. His understanding of the world’s ephemerality made him more open to fully embracing it. “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,” he says, “I don’t ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person.” In saying that, he has evolved into a sage who bears the burdens of others. To him, experiencing another’s grief was a transcendent experience. He’d do it for the connection it provided with his fellow passengers on their journey through an unknown universe. “Behold,” he says, “I do not give lectures or small amounts of charity; when I give, I give myself.” He would give up both his body and his soul for those around him. He was very much a part of the world; despite being beyond it. He was not restless for liberation; his liberation lay in “bequeathing himself to the dirt to grow from the grass he loved.” With this understanding, even death became dear to him. His rendezvous with the idea of death in his poems could easily place him alongside Emily Dickinson and John Keats. He was fascinated by it because it was feeble in front of him; he could “depart as air, effuse his flesh in eddies” for all he cared. When he writes, “And as to you life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths, No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before,” he echoes the Vedic worldview in which each individual goes through the cycle of birth and death ages after ages until they reach the state of enlightenment. He goes on to say, “And as for you corpse, I think you’re good manure, but that doesn’t bother me.” He celebrates death because he knows his orbit is infinite and cannot be erased. He declares to the universe, “I know I am deathless; I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter’s compass.”
A nineteenth century mystic mentions that on the plains, a man is awed by the size of the lowly grass compared to the mighty pine tree. However, when he reaches the summit and looks down, the tree and the grass become indistinguishable masses of greenness. Whitman stood on the highest peak, from which he could see everything with oneness. But his project was to take everyone along with him. The final lines of “Song of Myself” are a hint, an invitation to the reader to walk with him. He assures the reader that he is not left behind.
“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
1. In Hinduism, Krishna is a major deity. He is revered as Vishnu’s eighth avatar as well as a God unto himself.
2. The Bhagavad Gita (The song of God), also known as The Gita, is a 700 verse Hindu scripture that is a part of the epic Mahabharata. Dated to the second half of the first millennium BCE, it is regarded as one of Hinduism’s sacred scriptures.
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