Spontaneous Poetics – (Whitman – 2)

Philip (Whalen) in the last class [sic], read (so I’m told) a good deal of  (Walt) Whitman‘s prose, and I want to pick up where I left off..with Whitman, and pick up where Philip left off with Whitman, and read two passages of his prose that I always liked, and (that) are always, to use his own word, indicative for me (and then go back and pick up where I left off – remember, I had given a recitation of the organic lights, liver, lungs, eye-balls of “Song of Myself and (had) concluded it, and then I went on to jump way ahead, fifty years, to Whitman’s old age, to see how his afflatus, Jonathan Williams (has) pointed out..

In Democratic Vistas, there is a paragraph which I have been lifting and quoting for years as a great analysis of what’s happened to America – a disillusion paragraph for Whitman. A lot of the afflatus of the prose that Philip was pointing out (has) a certain generalization, and phoniness, about.. some of the early prose, simply because he’s making an idea, he’s promoting an idea, (a) somewhat egocentric, or egoistic, idea of democracy as being identical with his fantasy, or with his desire. But then there’s a later, disillusioned Whitman. So what I’m going to do is talk about (this) disillusioned Whitman (partly in relation to politics, and partly in relation to his own body) and then move on to disillusioned (William) Wordsworth (and put the two of them together again).

[Allen begins reading from Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas”]

“Arrived now definitely at an apex for these vistas. – (Democratic Vistas) – I confess that the promulgation and belief in such a class of institution, a new and greater literatus order, its possibility made certainty, underlies these entire speculations” – and, incidentally, underlies, to some degree, the whole notion of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics(at Naropa) – “the promulgation and belief in…a new and greater literatus order” (in our case, perhaps, a “literatus order” inspired by beatnik ecstasy and chastened by classic meditation) – Its possibility made certainty underlies these entire speculations. And that the rest, the other parts, as superstructures, are all founded upon it. It really seems to me the condition, not only of our future national and democratic development, but of our perpetuation. In the highly artificial and materialistic bases of modern civilization, with the corresponding arrangements and methods of living, the forced infusion of intellect alone, the depraving influence of riches just as much as poverty, the absence of all high ideals and character, with a long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam-engine speed (or jet-plane rapidity) to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings, all of which, compared with the feudal ages, we can yet do nothing better than accept, make the best of, and even welcome, on the whole, for their oceanic practical grandeur and their restless wholesale, the kneading of the masses – (K-N-E-A-D-I-N-G -“their restless wholesale kneading of the masses”) – I say all of this tremendous and dominant play of solely materialistic bearings upon current life in the United States, with the results as already seen, the cumulating and reaching far into the future, that they must either be confronted and met by at least an equally subtle and tremendous force infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine aesthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness, or else our modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain, and we are on road to a destiny, a status, equivalent in its real world to that of the fabled damned.” (That’s one of the great Whitmanic phrases on America – “The fabled damned” of nations – which is something that has actually come true!)

So what “force infusion of spiritualization” or “for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness” is he recommending? In the 1876 “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, there are a couple of statements that I have never seen emphasized very much, but which I have been isolating and emphasizing myself a lot (and used as a Preface to The Fall of America) – the “fabled damned of nations” phrase. What was his prescription for America in order to make American democracy work? (I’m still talking in terms of the poet as the Aboriginal songman, leading the whole society on this migration cycle – in this case, a spiritual migration cycle rather than a geographic migration cycle – Whitman here performing the role of.. what? – national prophet? (which he finally was – that was a status that was later given him, whether in joke, earnest, or provisionally, to see what happened) – In any case, he did finally get to have that role of prophet-poet, or social prophet, and is accepted as such, around the world, in that guise. Like, in Russia, Whitman is read as, “Yes, your national spokesman” (but a “spokesman”, in the sense of “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”, obviously), the one who would speak for the individual heart in America. And, since America was supposed to be the land of individuals, therefore the man who spoke for the individual heart was the prophet (like (Henry) Thoreau or (Ralph Waldo) Emerson, who said that, in the universe, the individual was a space or state vaster and more real than any idea of government )

[Audio for the above may be found here, starting at the beginning, through for the first nine minutes]

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