Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Behold this compost! behold it well! - singing along with Walt Whitman

Now when Whitman is not speaking bad prose he sings, and when he sings at all he sings well.  (Swinburne Letters, Vol. 3, Feb. 20 1875 to E. C. Stedman)

After a couple of decades rummaging through Walt Whitman I finally managed to read his complete poems, the 1891 Leaves of Grass, in my edition 400 packed pages of bad prose and fine singing.  Some of my “reading” was pretty mechanical, more of a one-eyed check that this particular poem was another one of those poems, one of the many returns to the same subject.  Sometimes reading is like flying; sometimes it is more like digging, and Whitman is a poet of the earth:

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther…
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with
            devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth. (“From Noon to Starry Night: Excelsior,” ellipses mine, skipping many other strong claims)

Earth poems; mole poems.  Compost poems.  Literally so – see “Autumn Rivulets: This Compost.”  Readers may remember when, several years ago, I invoked Whitman as the patron poet of weeding.  He is suitable for gardening, too, although in this poem the compostable material is man:

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’s corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Reading Whitman in bulk did finally pound in the significance the Civil War had for him – the destruction he saw on battlefields and in his work as a nurse, none of which turned him away from the Union cause, and how could it?

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions
               of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from
               them at last.

A happy ending, in an ecological sense.  So many poems return to the war.

I do not see where to include my favorite line, so it goes here: “Behold this compost! behold it well!”  Is this bad prose or singing?  As radically different as they are, Whitman and Swinburne share a tendency to trip into kitsch, a necessary risk of their innovative verse.  They are poets who “would go farther,” poets who go too far.

O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music – full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments – full of grain and trees.

O for the voices of animals – O for the swiftness and balance of fishes! (“A Song of Joys”)

And heck if the poem does not have some wonderfully described scenes of fishermen at work – “the dark green lobsters are desperate with their claws as I take them out, I insert wooden pegs in the joints of their pincers.”  Prose or singing?  This is how Whitman sings.

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!
To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.


  1. I am a big fan of Leaves of Grass.

    Whitman certainly had knack for digging into things like compost heaps and finding allegories for universal things. Like many others I find this strangely appealing.

  2. Whitman is so big that there is a Whitman for everyone.

  3. I would argue -- being the iconoclast that I am -- that Whitman's claim to fame (and greatness) is not necessarily quality (because a reader will not find it except in morsels) but innovation in American literature. In other words, read Whitman for his singularity and his willingness to break free from conventional forms rather than his poetic brilliance (occasional nuggets of gold). Too harsh? Too critical? Too iconoclastic? Yeah, I suppose. There are plenty of readers and critics who remain convinced that Whitman deserves apotheosis. I say otherwise.

  4. I'm not sure why you think that's iconoclastic. It seems like a common enough judgment - great conceptual innovator, smaller number of truly great poems.

    Although what is a great poet? The author of a great poem.

  5. My claim to iconoclasm comes from the fact that Whitman is widely regarded as something like a god among many critics. I reject that apotheosis. Thus -- iconoclasm.

    A great poet? I can think of a few who deserve that title. There are so many good poets but very few great ones. Whitman ain't great. Thus -- iconoclasm.

  6. All right. You're not just talking about Harold Bloom, are you? His language can get pretty strong.

  7. I think come spring as I am spreading the compost from my bin around the garden I shall yawp for all to hear “Behold this compost! behold it well!” I do love Whitman but have yet to be able to read him entire. I recall once in a college American lit class the professor was reading Whitman to the class and it was one of the poems with "O!" every few words. After a few lines one student broke and began giggling. It spread like wild fire around the room until even the professor started laughing. That was a great moment.

  8. I love that story. A truly Whitmanian moment. Embrace the ridiculousness, the kitsch and blowharding and crankery.

    Declaiming Whitman should make the job of mucking the compost go faster. I plan to do the same thing.

  9. AR(Tom), the notion of loving and embracing poetry -- not quite what you have said here -- deserves some scrutiny. See my link to an article in The New Yorker --
    -- as it becomes, I think, an interesting starting point for talking about cerebral v. emotional responses to Whitman and others. In fact, the cerebral v. emotional becomes the dilemma for all serious readers (including folks in and out of academia), and I have long been wrestling with that paradox. Indeed, do we read with our minds or -- pardon the tortured metaphorical application -- our hearts? So, given that dilemma, how do we best read Whitman?

  10. I don't know man. Veneration of the poet who wrote lines like these is understandable (they are miracle enough to stagger sextillions of doubters, I think):

    I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
    And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
    And the tree-toad is a masterpiece for the highest,
    And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
    And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
    And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
    And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

    1. Or those birds in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking":
      "He pour'd forth the meanings which I of all men know."

      I believe you, Brother Walt, I believe!

  11. Good. I did not understand the Joshua Rothman piece. You can explain it. Can Rothman be describing the Deidre Shauna Lynch book accurately?

    "Some mind, some heart," vary ratio as needed. That has always seemed best to me.

  12. AR(Tom) . . . I think I will postpone my comments (except for some preliminaries that will be a bit superficial) until I get a copy of the Lynch book. She seems to be looking into the can of worms that has bothered me ever since grad school. And I am at this moment reminded of a comment made by a prof of literary criticism who warned me and other students in the class that we would henceforth be "ruined" as readers because we would no longer read for pleasure (read with our hearts) but would read as critics and analysts (read with our minds). Note: I was a poor student (and I suppose a poor teacher) in that I never quite got with the academia program -- my heart rather than my mind has dominated all of my reading. In any case, I will get back to the issues later -- after Lynch.

  13. That was just a warning shot at the "all heart" crowd. He didn't really mean it. Reading critically is one of life's finest pleasures. Who reads The Little Professor (or fill in your favorite here) and thinks academics can't or don't read for pleasure?

    1. No, the old bastard meant it. He wanted no "affective fallacies" in any critical papers. Yes, The Little Professor and Rohan Maitzen and D. G. Myers and Marly Youmans and (yes!) AR(Tom) -- to name but five --- serve as reminders that heart-and-mind are collaborators in good criticism.

    2. Well, meant it in class, sure. How else do you train professionals?

  14. Was it Nietzsche or Housman who was accused of having favorite Latin poets by their fellow scholars? Imagine the audacity, enjoying what you read!...

    1. Robert Graves was being given a Viva Voce at Oxford: "Hm" said an academic "It seems you prefer some poets to others, Mr. Graves."

    2. What a story.

      I think the classic Oxford don is a special case of the academic species.

  15. Getting head and heart properly aligned has applications beyond reading but is no less difficult for that. I've always resisted Whitman while acknowledging something powerful that is there. I'm not sure if the resistance comes from head, heart or elsewhere.

  16. I would suggest that Whitman was perhaps too American if there were not so many great European poets who responded to him, along with the dozens of American poets. So that ain't it. There is plenty to resist in Whitman, I do not doubt that.