Meditation and Poetics – (Whitman – 6)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)  c.187o – Photograph by Frank Pearsall via The Library of Congress

Actually his Walt Whitman’s) contribution was, well, you could call it generosity. The first virtue, the first paramita – generosity – there. Absolutely totally generous with the display of his feelings. A bodhisattva, in that sense, that he completely opened up his heart and his own mind for inspection – “What I shall assume, you shall assume”

He was the first person in American history to open himselfup to make public what is private, to make public what was so completely private, to a point where, I think, the book was in his desk as a customs inspector and his boss saw it, and he got kicked out of his job, because the book was so shocking in those days, particularly this passage:

“I mind how we once lay such a transparent summer morning,/ How you settled your head athwart my hips and gntly turn’d over upon me,/ And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,/And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet./Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the arguments of the earth,/ And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,/ And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,/ And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women, my sisters and lovers,/And that a kelson of the creation is love,/And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,/And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,/ And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stone, elder, mullein, and poke-weed.”

Does everybody know that passage previously, that epiphanous thing? Is there anybody that had read it before? that had read it before? Is there anybody that had not read this? Well, it’s a great moment in American letters. I think this is the great self-revelation in Whitman. It’s certainly an epiphany. Yes?

Student: (So) that would be the impetus for his illumination. See, from there, it (all) began, …but, (at) first…)

AG: Is that what it all boils down to, do you mean?

Student: Isn’t that what triggered his illumination?

AG: I think so. I think it was the recognition. See, here he was, this secret lover, aching, until he was forty, in Brooklyn, working as a newsman, writing a kind of prurient novel (he wrote novels and they were temperance novels, moralistic temperance novels, for money, I think, potboilers – [Editorial note – Whitman’s temperance novel, Franklin Evans – or The Inebriate, was published in 1842)] – Then, somehow, maybe this happened to him and he recognized his own feelings once and for all, and recognized the ultimate nature of them – that that was his ordinary mind, so to speak, or that was his absolute nature and he was willing to be that, finally, to step into his own skin. It wasn’t, however, until someone had given him permission, I think. His lover gave him permission by responding (which is a word that (Robert) Duncan uses often, that word “permission” – that we have our inklings, which we take to be crazy, until someone from the outside recognizes that impulse, and says, ”Yeah, I feel that way too”, or you feel that way and somebody else likes it too, and opens up a space where it’s safe to express it. Here somebody had completely responded to his idealized desire, and actually made love to him, because he’s the passive acher, aching, laying out on the grass, and somebody actually made love to him. I imagine in a way thathe had never expected would happen in his life, and that must have completely blown his mind, as they say, or blown his heart (if not his genitals!), and, finding one response out (there) in the outer universe, in the outside world, (he) must have felt then, finally, (that) there was an attunement possible.

So he says, “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace…” (a relief from the anxiety of being totally alone) – “the peace and knowledge that pass all the arguments of the earth,/And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,/ And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,/ And that all the men ever born are also my brothers…” – (brothers-under-the-skin, brothers in emotion, he means – that every man born has emotions like himself, if not in the same direction and object, every man has the same vulnerability, tenderness, impossible desire).

[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at twenty minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-four-and-a-half minutes in] 

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