This is an essay by Amarie Fox.
The natural world is a mortal collective, composed of physical matter that will eventually pass out of existence. This single similarity, though, is often dismissed or overlooked by humanity. Evolution carried civilization forward, away from our original primitive roots, and during that process, a simultaneous estrangement from nature occurred. Through our detachment, namely our intellectual advancements, we became distinguished beings, separated from everything else that could not call itself human. One of the most obvious lines of demarcation that led to this elevated status is language. However, even the biblical episode of the Tower of Babel – where mankind basically talk their creation into being – accurately presents the darker side to the act of discourse. In theory, discourse revolves around the basic presumption that all things are essentially talked into being, including social constructs and ideologies. If we are to be honest, in many ways, we have intellectualized ourselves above the natural world, creating further divergences not only between man and nature, but between one another, as well. After all, there are categories of man and woman, black and white, religious and secular. In such a society, then, the mere suggestion of a democracy can present a challenge. How does one unite and sew together all of the loose strands that make up America, especially when such a wealth of identities exist? Can it even be done?
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass strives to accomplish this, by resolving the problem and centering his collection of poems on a single, universal image: grass. For what is lower to us than grass? What is more ignored and trodden on, every single day, than grass? Yet, what is more representative of a nation? As a poet of a country still struggling with its identity, Whitman wanted to use language – the very thing that divides – in order to unravel our discourses and bring us back to a purer outlook that reminds us of our similarities to one another and nature. Through the reoccurring motif of grass, Whitman successfully spreads his message of equality and oneness, while also examining and working through several seemingly opposite or conflicting ideas.
What does it mean?
The trouble most people seem to encounter with poetry is the cryptic nature – the symbols and connections. It scares people away, they assume it is one for the elite, certainly not the everyday man. Whitman, though, never wished to isolate himself, or purposely fill his message with images one could not grasp. Opening the original cover, to the first edition, one is met with a portrait of a man in simple dress, looking as if he just left the fields.
Keep in mind that in this early period of American history, we – as a nation – were still trying to distinguish ourselves, figure out what it meant to be “an American.” The poetry Whitman was writing was (and still is) not lofty or ‘English’ in any way. It was radical and new. It spoke not just to his generation, but all generations of people to come.
One cannot demand something from poetry. Maybe it isn’t always a quick or easy read. Maybe that is the point. It takes time; it takes patience. It has to unfold for you with time, you cannot expect to bludgeon it open, letting its meaning spill out, on the first read through.
Poem of Walt Whitman, An American
Originally titled, “Poem of Walt Whitman, An American,” in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” appropriately begins with a focus on the singular, with the pronouns “I” and “myself” both present in the very first line. It is only in the third line that there is a slight shift from one man, the speaker – Whitman, himself – to the collective: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”
Who is this “you”? Traditionally, this use of apostrophe, or the inclusion of ‘you,’ was used in sentimental poetry of the time. However, Whitman takes it on, in order to open up the poem, because ‘you’ could refer to anyone – one person or many.
However, the “spear of summer grass” is the real turning point and what allows the speaker to illustrate his larger message. The rest of the poem blossoms from this association between Whitman and the blade of grass. It as if the scope is readjusted or widened, causing the singular to be redefined. The poem is not about just one man, exactly, but a multitude of identities and personalities that the one man seeks to take on and embrace.
Grass: The symbol of one and all
This initial observation sets the tone and is elaborated on, later in the poem, when grass is shown as representative of both the individual and the collective. Just as a blade of grass uniquely stands alone, so too does each person. However, we also exist together and make up one entity – blades of grass create a lawn or in this case: the American people make up America. Whitman understands it to be a perfect metaphor and carrier for his message:
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
In its undiscriminating manner, grass delivers a silent lesson to us all. Like a magic mirror, in which we can periodically look down upon, it reveals a true image: that every man, no matter his skin color or social rank, is composed of all of the same matter and materials. We have to look to grass as an example; just as grass grows among everyone, we have to see one another as equals. Surely, we can be divided by social constructs, but the fact remains that they are only human constructs of our own making and have absolutely nothing to do with the natural order. One blade of grass or one person is no better than the next. If we choose to take that belief on, we’re simultaneously chaining ourselves to a very limited notion of life. Whitman’s prescription for this is radical inclusivity. Through several pages, he paints a portrait of certain types of people by cataloging them, one right after the other. From the duck-shooting, to the deacon, to the lunatic being carried to the asylum – nearly every type imaginable is included.
Whitman shows himself to be a man with a dual vision. As much as he is attuned to individual variations, he can also compile them into a whole, so that they exist together, side by side, like blades of grass, blurring into one another. It is almost as if every person is a section of a gigantic, sprawling mural. One can either narrow one’s focus on a particular section or stand back and view the painting from afar. Still, no matter the perspective, the mural would not be totally complete without any of its individual elements.
“I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born”
Whitman was a poet of the people – not just of man or woman, free man or slave. Whitman sees himself in all people and meditates on every existence and this democratic inclusiveness is remarkably evident in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman no longer just encompasses all kinds of people, but people in all times, including the future generations: “What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you – I laid in my stores advance / I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.” He doesn’t just transcend social boundaries, as in “Song of Myself,” but also time and space. The song he is singing isn’t just for “himself” or even for his generation, but for all generations, including all of the ones he will never know. It is as if he is opening his arms even wider for an embrace to include multitudes upon multitudes. Obviously, we can be separated by history, but, for Whitman, we share so much, and people will always be people, despite our cultural and technological advances.
“What is grass?”
During the “What is grass?” section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman eases into the connection between grass as not just an emblem of our day-to-day existence, but of our mortality. Of course, this metaphor is not original to Whitman, but he does manage to do something unique and interesting with is, by calling it the “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
Now, grass is not typically associated with hair, but the connection fits, because hair is essentially dead, once it grows out, and yet it remains tethered to our bodies. We don’t think twice about how we contain both living anddead elements. Whitman forges this correlation between hair and grass, because both operate in similar ways: while hair is dead and grows from a living source, grass is alive and blooms from the dead. Both are links between two different realms. As much as grass can be seen as a divider between the living and dead, it is even more so a joining force or intermediary and an opportunity for spiritual reunion within a natural setting:
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 ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and onward . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
The grass is “beautiful” hair of graves, because the dead are a component of it. By channeling their energy and materials into the soil, the dead are able to live on. It is “lucky” to die, because we change after our human deaths and take on another, new life. We escape our flesh, but our atoms – the ones Whitman mentions in the beginning of the poem – help support other natural things to flourish. Those living parts of nature become like telephone lines to the living, signaling that the deceased are always perpetually present and near by. Again, he proposes why we need to re-establish a relationship with nature: in essence, we are nature and to nature we will eventually return. The link to what we will become – and what those we have loved and list – is all around us.
The body and soul may be considered two separate things that exist together for a very short amount of time, but during that union, they also share a mutual beneficiary relationship. While the soul experiences many sensual experiences through the body, the body exists primary for the soul. Meaning that without the body and its death, we would not be able to channel our carbon and other materials into something else and live on. In fact, toward the end of “Song of Myself,” Whitman makes another correlation, this time between the living and dead, because just as the body exists for the soul, the dead provide a service, of sorts, to the living:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Even when we go on about our day, Whitman implies that the dead are, for all of eternity, with us, since they are giving forces, or really life-giving forces, by providing oxygen, which, in turn, keeps us alive. The soul and body may share one relationship, but the dead and living share another.
Here is what it means
In the Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman admits that “a great poem is for ages and ages in common and for all degrees and complexions and sects and for woman as much as a man and a man as much as a woman.”
These days, every thing and every one has a niche. Literature is not simply literature; even it is fragmented and divided into neat categories. The worry should be that, when one is so immersed in a particular group, it might become difficult to see past the community. We want to somehow set ourselves apart from the mass, even wear a special badge of distinction, but that seems even further away than anything from what Whitman first suggested.
Sure, every century will have its share of crises – whether political, social, or individual – but throughout his work there is a tone of familiarity and comfort, of an American sitting beside another American. He is looking forward to us and singing the same song he sang to the 19th century, because it is an eternal song, one that can never pass out of relevance, and one that we need a constant reminder of time and time again.
If I aimed to do anything with this piece, it is share a common love and understanding of early American poetry, for is carries with it important messages that we cannot forget. In such a time as we live in now, maybe it is comforting to feel connected to something. Poetry can do that. Whitman provided the comfort, opened his arms wide, but maybe the hardest thing to do is look back at him.
Walt Whitman Archive – http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
Leaves of Grass on Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1322