Expansive Poetics – 13 – Walt Whitman – 2

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), 1854

Student: (It) seems like sometimes he (Whitman)’s trying to make an attempt to justify himself, or says that what, what he’s doing, and just exactly what he’s doing, is exactly what he should be doing, and.. and neither.. that’s what hear, or, I guess, (it’s) what I hear

AG: Un-hmm. Yeah. What’s his reasoning?

Student: Well, he’s a..  This is “Song of Myself”..

AG: Yeah
Student: .. but this is a later edition.
AG: Yeah, this is the final edition.

Student:  Final edition. So he took so much criticism for his initial publishing, even from (Ralph Waldo) Emerson – his famous story. that, after, you know, giving him all this praise, then Whitman used it in a cover-letter in the following edition, the subsequent edition.
AG:  Yeah, “I greet you at the beginning of a new career” (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career…“)
Student: Yes.

AG: Emerson wrote him a little note and Whitman printed it in gold leaf on the back cover of his book and Emerson said, “Oi,..

Student: I think that..

AG:  “Who is this creep?”

Student: I think he may have been charged with egotism at that point
AG: Yeah. However, the egotism he’s talking about here (in “Song of Myself”) is for empathizing with everything.
Student: Hmm
AG: In every direction. In Buddhist terms, it’s a kind of bodhisattva attitude of sympathizing compassionately, or being inquisitive by the nature of mind itself – an inquisitiveness that penetrates everywhere, unobstructed. I think his excuse is that because his curiosity is unobstructed, therefore the empathy is unobstructed, therefore he can tell about an old-time sea-fight, or being in Texas, or.. Yeah?

Student: I was just going to say, those four.. those four stages that you were talking about in the President’s class (the other night) [Editor’s note – Student is presumably referring to a contemporandous (1981) lecture by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche here]   – I can’t remember what they were, but my feeling is that that’s what he means, you know, like trusting his own senses.

AG: Yeah, trusting his own senses, trusting his own empathies.

Student: Trust, yeah. Just trusting yourself. (So) he can say whatever he feels like.
AG: Yeah, He can say whatever he feels like because he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.
Student: Um-hmm
AG: And everybody thinks, and nobody’s in control of their thinking.
Student: Um-hmm
AG: Nobody’s at all in control of their thinking because everbody thinks everything..
Student: Right
AG: ..at one time or another, and everybody sympathizes with everything, or sympathizes..
Student: They don’t always say that

AG:  Yes. Like, Coyote does everything – Coyote fucks his mother and bites off your nose – fucks your mother and bites off your nose! – but most people don’t want to admit that they fucked your mother, and then went ahead and insulted you by biting off your nose.  Yeah?


Student: Didn’t he say earlier in his poems that he has a chance to say whatever he feels?

AG: Yes.  What was the line? – “Nature unchecked with orginal energy at every hazard”? – or something like that.  (“I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,/Nature without check with original energy”). What I like is “unchecked” – that is, not obstructed by fear of thinking that he is the creep. He’s not afraid to be the creep, whereas most people are afraid to be the creep. They’re afraid that if they once admit that they have a glimpse of themselves as creep, they will become (the) permanent eternal creep. In other words, Whitman’s insight is that naturally he’s a creep, permanently, eternally, at the same time he’s the most handsome over and he’s the old grandfather and he’s the mother bearing children and the nasty stockbroker and the sweating slave, which everybody is. Everybody is, in the sense that everybody, at one time or other, sees themselves  that way for a flash. Just like Andy Warhol says that everyone’s going to be famous for fifteen minutes  – everybody in the world will be famous for at least fifteen minutes – that everybody will go through one moment of planetary glory as well as everybody will go to hell for fifteen minutes (everybody go to permanent hell for at least fifteen minutes), everybody get to heaven for at least fifteen minutes, everybody will be on television for fifteen minutes. Because it’s ordinary mind (as Andy Warhol is ordinary). It’s just ordinary mind that everybody gets murdered once in their lifetime. Everybody commits murder, at least once
(if not in this lifetime, in another one – and if not awake, asleep, and if not asleep, in a thought, (and) if not in a thought, in a full-blown fantasy). So everybody has been everywhere and everything, in the sense of everybody’s already been there.  Yeah?

Student: That’s the same sort of confusion in a way that I get when reading Whitman – that is, trying to define his level of personal experience..or..or is he.. or is he simply spouting off? Is the just this mouth spouting off?

AG: Well, I think he’s not trying.. he’s defining his level.. (I don’t know what you mean by “level of personal experience”).. He’s defining his glimpses of experience in his imagination or in real life, and he’s allowing them to be mixed up because he can imagine anybody (or) other people in that position. Secretly, I think, because he’s trying to get laid, basically, so he’s trying to set up a system of psychology where everybody can imagine everything and empathize with everything and not be scared of any situation. It’s a basic con, in a way, saying that we can be everything and we can do anything – “we can be everything,  (so) don’t be afraid to let me suck your cock”, basically, I think, is what the pitch is! – to Peter Doyle,the tram-car conductor who was his friend.

So, let’s say this is addressed to impress his young friends. He’s trying to say that he, Walt Whitman, is capable of all these roles and so “I know perfectly well my own egotism,/Know my omnivorous lines and must not write any less/And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself” – If I can do this, you can do this too.

Student: Yeah,

AG:  Or, I think, judging from my own personal psychology, I would guess this to be Whitman’s ploy, or motif, motive, or probably it’s on his mind, as a basic approach to seduction – of the world! (I mean, not only of the lover, but of the world itself..)

Student: Hmm

AG:  ..(of) the world itself. But it’s also hitting on something which is quite real for everybody else – that, actually, everybody else (within limits, say) is able to empathize with an enormously greater variety of roles than they are originally are conditioned to conceive of themselves as fitting. And so Whitman is prying open the lid and letting out the can of worms. He’s prying open the lid on everybody’s consciousness and pleading for an expanded consciousness, actually. Expanded allowance.  An expanded tolerance. (probably an expanded tolerance for himself , but an expanded tolerance for everybody, so everybody can have a wider time or a better time).

The danger was, I always thought, was that if you said that you identified with everything throughout the whole universe, what it would be doing would be trying to stretch your own identity to cover everything – to make your identity so multiple that it would be the identity of everything in the universe. But it still would be identity, or still would be ego, so to speak. It would still be self. It would still be self and erotic grasping – passionate, aggressive, maybe stupid or maybe ignorant or maybe obtuse, let us say. Passionate, aggressive and obtuse self trying to stretch its business so that it can be everything in the universe, rather than giving everything up, rather than letting go of the idea of self entirely, and letting the self collapse, he’s really working very hard to create a self  that’s as big as the universe. And that’s the big criticism of Whitman from the right-wing, the reactionary right-wing – that because he says he’s everything, it’s all a bunch of meaningless mush – he’s not making any discrimination – and anybody can sat that they’re everybody, and who would want to be everybody? (William) Burroughs  I can see, sniffing at the whole prospect, “I don’t want to be no American housewife!” – or William Buckley might object, saying that he can’t..he would not.. God didn’t make him a Communist and he does not want to be one, much less a homosexual like Walt Whitman.

On the other hand, because he stretches the point of ego, or he stretches the tent of the ego to cover everything, it does serve the practical purpose of exercising sympathy and perception and empathy and tolerance and allowance for a great variety of selves that actually are there. If you’re not everything in the universe, from squid to star, at least you might be several hundred human beings and dogs…and pigs. Yes?

Student: I was thinking  of, in terms of seduction, if he is all these things, he’s bound to fit one of your fantasies too – you know what I mean?
AG: Yes
Student: He’s talking to somebody, “Well, if you don’t like an old seafarer, maybe you’d like…I don’t know…a leaf – or something like that?”

AG: Um-hmm. Yeah.
Well, he says (in section 44) – “It is time to explain myself” at long last –

[Audio for the above is available here, beginning at approximately ten minutes in and concluding approximately twenty-one minutes in] 

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