Spontaneous Poetics – (Calamus Whitman)

Calamus grass

AG: Well there’s a funny kind of humor in Whitman that gives him a more ample mind than Wordsworth in his disillusion. I think partly because his original revolution was more deeply grounded in Nature, or his own body, and his own desire. And he had, from the very beginning, some sense of sunyata, or emptiness, hollowness, trickiness, about his own thought-forms, and his own passions, and his own attachments. In laying out his own story, to begin with I read a little prose paragraph, where he says his most rank or direct political statement was in the sexual or erotic passages of “Calamus”. Even in there, when he’s loosening his desire, when he announces, (from “Scented Herbage of My Breast’) – “I will say what I have to say by itself/ I will sound myself and comrades only, I will never again utter a call, only their call,/ I will raise with it immortal reverberations through the States/I will give an example to lovers to take permanent shape and will through the States,/Through me shall the words be said to make death exhilarating./Give me your tone therefore O death that I might accord with it..”, he announces that he’s going to not only talk of his own direct loves and deaths, but also encourage “the love of comrades/(with) the life-long love of comrades” – [Allen continues – from “For You, O Democracy] – “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes and all over the prairies”
[and from “These I Singing in Spring”] – “And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall/ Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!)” –

In the midst of that insistency, there’s a little poem, “Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” – “Are you the new person drawn toward me?/To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose?/Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?/Do you think it is so easy to have me become your lover?”…”Have you no thought O dreamer that it may all be maya, illusion?” – So he’s able to look on himself, see through himself, in the sense that all phenomena are tricky, questionable, playful, open, needn’t be solidified by an idea into obsessive nightmare (as they did somewhat become with Wordsworth, who, on top of it all, did have a non-Maya-ic God, a solidified God, or some solidified notion of eternity, that was continually haunting him)

Student: What poem was the last one?

AG: “Are You the New Person Drawn Toward Me?” from (the) “Calamus” section (of  Leaves of Grass). Yeah?

Student: Isn’t that a departure from what you had read before, in the sense that he was identifying with the cosmic self and kind of still hanging on to that notion of…

AG: Well, its more like that’s his tendency. His tendency is to identify with a cosmic self and hang on to that notion and empathize to the extreme end of the universe, but there’s also these holes in his mind.

Student: Yeah

AG: ..which he expresses very clearly every once in a while – early and late. That’s what makes him so much like (a) Sutra, in a sense, or some representative of Actual Mind – that he doesn’t really insist, obsessionally, on any final image – perhaps, urge (“procreant urge” or urge to transformation), but then, finally, that sense of urgent desire becomes identified with the notion of change, really. In a sense, he’s always switching around. He’s smart enough to switch around. He switches technology. Desire then can be, later on, used as change. So it’s an alchemical, or tantric, transformation of thought-forms. What might begin with a little love glimpse can be transformed, say, into a glimpse of passing farewell, (instead of a glimpse of attachment).kt067nc4vr_fig011

Whitman and friend, Harry Stafford, a New Jersey farm boy, late 1870’s

There is a poem called “A Glimpse” that I’ve always liked because it’s actual life-like, from “Calamus” (I want to get back to Wordsworth, but while we’re here) – [Allen reads Whitman’s “A Glimpse”, in is entirety] – “A glimpse through an interstice caught..”…”There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.” – That’s so accurate a description of what really does happen between “I”s and between souls that it’s kind of a miracle..

Student: Can you read that again?

AG: Yeah – “A Glimpse”. This is also (from the) “Calamus” section. You’ve not heard this? How many know this little “Glimpse”? – or had heard it? – There’s a lot of very brief glimpses like this in Whitman that are so reflective of actual soul-incidents that we all have (the kind of soul-incidents that composes the entire structure of (Jack) Kerouac )”s writings), actually) – the recognition of desire, or recognition of soul, or recognition of soul-energy and exchange of  energy (though in Kerouac, as in other poets, there was a disillusion in that, finally. You know, he thought it might all be maya, illusion). [Allen reads the poem again] – There are a few.. he generalizes. This is almost Kerouac-ian.

This next poem is “A Leaf… – “Leaves of Grass” – …For Hand in Hand” –  “A leaf for hand in hand,/ You natural persons old and young!….”…”I wish to infuse myself among you til I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.” –

tape ends here and then resumes with Allen reading

‘”To a Western Boy” –  “..many things to absorb I teach you to help you to become a pupil of mine/. Yet if blood like mine circle not in your veins/ If you not be silently selected by lovers, and do not silently select lovers,/ Of what use is it that you seek to become a pupil of mine?” –  “Oh you whom I often and silently come” – “Oh you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you./ As I walk by your side or sit near or remain in the same room with you/Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me”

Well, everybody recognizes that. Everybody’s had that experience, haven’t they?  Has anybody not had that experience?

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-one minutes in, and concluding approximately thirty-four-and-a-quarter minutes in (note silence between tapes (at approximately twenty-nine-and-three-quarter minutes in, resuming at approximately thirty-three-and-a-half minutes in)]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *