Meditation and Poetics – (Whitman – 9)

Student: Allen, what does he Whitman mean by “soul”?

AG: I wonder – What does he mean by “soul”. Well I think we have to read on more because he’s going to define it. And he changes the meaning, actually a number of times. so you can’t really…

Here is one suggestion, a little later on, from the Calamus section (of Leaves of Grass)(I’ve mentioned it before, but see how (it) relates to his celebrating his soul) – [Allen reads from Whitman] – “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 so easy to have you become my lover?/ Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?/ Do you think I am trusty and faithful?/ Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?/ Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?/ Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya (So he’s willing to admit that – that little glimpse of sunyata>or that little break in the façade – “Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?”..)

In the “Song of Myself” itself, there are sections where he breaks up and cracks up, has little nervous breakdownsabout his identity and about his assertion, or about his universal potent power, or the universal power of his empathy.

As to what his definition of “soul” is, there is on page twenty-eight – Section Six – “A child said What is the grass, fetching it to me with full hands, / How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is anymore than he” – (“Soul” – “Grass”) -“I guess it must be the flag of my disposition..” – ( I guess the soul must be “the flag of my disposition”, if you wanted to interpret it that way. so he’ll give various definitions now) – ““I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven/ Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,/ A scented gift and a remembrancer divinely dropt,/Bearing the owner’s name somewhere in the corners, that we may see and remark and say, Whose?” – “Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the Vegetation.Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,/And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,/Growing among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same./ And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves/” – “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass,/ It nay be you transpire from the breasts of young men/ It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,/It may be you are from old people , or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps/ And here you are, the mothers’ laps./ This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,/Darker than the colorless beards of old men,/ Dark to come from the faint red roofs of mouths” – (That’s very interesting, that “faint red roofs of mouths”, that’s really good – like (William Carlos) Williams or Charles) Reznikoff – just as accurate perception – “the “faint red roofs of mouths”, Very few people get that close inside a mouth, ever) – “ Or I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,/And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing./ I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,/ And the hints about old men and mothers , and the offspring taken soon out of their laps,/ What do you think has become of the young and old men?/And what do you think has become of the women and children? / They are alive and well somewhere,/ The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,/ And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,/ And ceas’d the moment life appear’d./ All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

Well, can you figure out a “soul” from that? – “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” -Well, I couldn’t figure out a fixed soul from that. So I don’t know what he meant by “soul”, except the observing intelligence, or the observing sympathy. The sympathetic observer, or, as he will extend it later on, I guess, that Person, open, tolerant , or that aspect of Person which is open, tolerant mind, which sees everything, emphasizes with everything, doesn’t judge anything, simply shines out. Like the line (in)  To a Common Prostitute” – “Not till the sun rejects you do I reject you”. In other words, a mind energetic, continuous, observant, out-flowing, as the sun (which is actually our own minds, as Williams pointed out – “Who shall say I’m not the happy genius of my household, if I behave like a naked idiot in my attic?” – “Who shall say that I am not/the happy genius of my household?) . That is, the same mind which (sic) “must have a part in everything” (“Must you have a part in everything?”), which smells out everything, in Williams’ poem “Smell”, remember?  I think it’s that quality of inquisitiveness of mind. Inquisitive tolerance or what William) Burroughs would call “benevolent indifferent attention”, or what (Jiddu) Krishnamurti would call “choiceless awareness”, or what the Buddhists would call bodhicitta, which is to say wakened mind, which is non-judgmental.

There are certain moments in Whitman where there’s some kind of correlation – that the soul actually is just empty mind (empty, in the sense of accepting), all-accommodating, accommodating mind. Accommodating mind. Certainly you could say that about Whitman – accommodating mind. The nature of Buddhist wakefulness, that’s the terminology for that – Accommodating mind.

However, there is no reference, in the traditional Buddhist shot, to “God”, “soul”, or “self” in that accommodating mind. Whitman proposes the word “Person” and “self” for the same awareness or accommodating mind, from his nineteenth-century vocabulary – adequate, quite adequate, actually. Because he’s changed the meaning of “self” here. He’s actually made not “me-self” but “me-self-same-as-your-self”. So, whatever is elemental and common in self(which would be open, accommodating mind). And the whole “Song of Myself”(then) is the song of open, accommodating mind, rather than closed-in, selfish, self-hood (though there is constant struggle for him to deal with what his self-hood desires – the homosexual, say – and to (thus) accommodate women – In other words, because he’s proclaiming self as complete accommodating mind then he has to start accommodating). So there’s this conflict between what he naturally accommodates and what he feels he’s got to accommodate. But I think he is, just, sort of like everybody else, dealing with the problems of self-hood, the obstacles to accommodation. The special desires, graspings, and obsessions are opportunities for more recognition, and for more opening up.

[Audio for the above can be heard here,beginning at approximately thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-and-a-quarter minutes in]

Leave a Reply

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