BY ALAN BOTSFORD SAITOH
A MAMAIST APPOINTMENT
Come now, come before
It's too late (it's never too late)
Come into being's conclusions.
Come. be not afraid.
This is where things have come to.
You've come back to your senses now
You were a little overcome (welcome to the club)
Odds are, you're no newcomer
You've been here before
Having come undone many times before
In order to come into your own.
Now everything comes
To this, but nothing here comes ready-made
Come, passion. come, mingling
Come, you have already come a long way
Come see yourself for who you are come see others for who they are
Come, slow or fast, dreaming of no outcome
Come out into the open
Come in from the cold
To welcome the commonplaces
To step into that temple's shrine
And behold the wonders coming about
(Who knows what came over you before)
You've come to in a new place
Yes, you're coming round
Past your nightmares, which come to everyone (you're not alone)
These comings and goings
Are what you have here to come back to
That comes at you
It's been a long time coming
Like the coming of spring
(In being hoped for does it come true?
It'll come to you--you can see it coming)
Come, don't succumb now.
See the light inside you coming on
Like the world coming to an end?
Come, you've come this far
It is you who are coming to light
(What sweeter outcome could there be?)
Come, it's all come to this
Let the fog dissipate, let the world come back into focus
(It can come as a shock)
You're always welcome here
Where the fires are kept burning
You've come to the right place
And there's so much more to come.
Many things are beginning to come full circle now.
You thought nothing would come of this, but something has
You're going to get what's been coming to you
It's been a long time coming
Now it's coming true
The necessary miracle coming to pass
After so many coming and goings
After coming to blows with the shadow of yourself
Let your radiance come forth
You know your own worth
Come and play your part
Come and depart
Like the ground beneath your feet
That has been your undoing so often before
Come into the center now
Where nothing comes to an end for good
You've come to that point
You have come into the mystery
(To this you come naturally)
Where so much is yet to come
Henceforth all your powers of faith and hope and love
Shall come into play.
Come and get it
For you've come into the money
That comes with this territory
You've come into your inheritance, richly deserved
Come, spend it wisely
In this age of blossom, age of Bloom, reflecting,
Always astonished how it is between
The acts under Western eyes:
The good soldier to the lighthouse; or
The good apprentice waiting for godot (in paranthesis); or
The burning oracle… But O nothing, nothing like
The sun, loving the wheel of fire, the sense
Of an ending, is this fool-- a son saved!
For it's my homecoming, Amerika,
Like the sleepwalker (a man without qualities)
In the last days of mankind, in the storm of roses.
O illuminations! parables! fragments! aphorisms!
O the trial! the unbearable lightness of being
Guide to the underworld-- the cancer ward, the gulag
Archipelago, the foundation pit, shadow lands…
And during this visit a part of speech, hunger,
Tremor, guilt, exile …until
The prophesied return later? …much later, the nightingale
Perched on nothing's branch,
At war with the newts…
…A slow homecoming, yes, to
What I love in the past continuous, in traveling
In my fathers' court-(Barabas? his daughter?),
In the fountain and tomb-a dress of fire
At the stone of losses, a perfect peace
Like the future in the present (see under: love),
Or like the lost steps, labyrinths, the music
Of human flesh, dreamtigers, men
revisionist, page 2, continue stanza
Of maize, Paradiso! (the obscene bird of night)
Or Like a change
Of skin… O on and on! Traveling
In the family, now at a bend in the river,
Now a dance in the forest. …Yet… No longer
At ease… For the harder they come
--Arrows of god!- so come the
Casualties, things falling apart…
Didn't you know? …My foe
My 'brilliant career,' an imaginary life
Now the professor's house, the necessary
Angel surfacing under the volcano
With midnight's children (in heat and dust…),
My fables of identity a fringe of leaves,
Tender buttons (spring and all!).
An American tragedy? It can't happen
Here, here in the palm at the end
Of the mind, here at the house of
Mirth-three lives (Lazarus laughed!).
The garden of Eden? (Call it sleep).
In other words, world enough and
Time, time for the ponder heart working a vein of iron…
Barren ground? a rhetoric of motives? or
A cool million in cold blood? The price
Of the ticket-- Seasons
Of earth while bending the bow…
O seize the day invisible man!
Make straw for the fire (pale fire),
For wise blood, ancient evenings, for the second skin where
I'm calling from-- advertisements for myself
As the fixer, writing by the left hand of
Darkness, by my life as a man, as
The moviegoer, child of god, a running dog
In love and sleep-- with dog soldiers
The central motion, the counterlife of
My mumbo jumbo, of the little disturbances of man.
Time remaining? On wings of song the form
Of a motion, the dead father (speed-the-plow),
And the stars (were) shining, living together from
The first, findings, as the one day dimensions of
History. Still, the continuous life, streamers
In the world of ten thousand things. Westward!
-- No nature?-River writing
The rest of the way (earthly measures), a call
In the midst of the crowd. The old and new
A MAMAIST DESTINATION
The real meaning of a place we would all
Like to believe in, in
The moonlight, more in our
Hearts than our heads, depends on
Learning to live with danger, with
The trouble in transit…
It's the same old story: first,
When you step through the door,
Your mind withers and your
Body freezes with dread. It happens
No matter how many times you go through.
For the time, according to your sources, is
Not yet ripe for creative initiative.
So you tread lightly, facing up to
The risks of ignominy, of insults,
Of humiliations. Then, if you look
Around, you start seeing it.
The colors, once painted black,
Now shine. Like gems in the night.
There's not a white in sight,
Not a gray in view. It's all about making
The heat more approachable.
Then, taking shape deep in
The recesses, is what, in the blink
Of an eye, touches you, but like gold
Earning its shine, you keep from crying.
When you look into this future,
Everything's moving at lightening speed.
With very little space, there's plenty
Of room for pictures when you get there,
You remind yourself, so you,
At this very moment, start roaming.
Anything that gets in the way is
A step backward. Soon connectivity
Instead of getting easier, becomes
Harder. But don't be put off.
A lot of roaming is all about
Who roams with whom, who agrees
With whom. It's not an issue
Of unwillingness, it's just the physical
Task of doing the connectivity.
So continue where you're headed-
Later on you'll be able to taste
That distant possibility in your mouth,
That clear desire, that bigger pie
With which everybody is better off.
For now, though, sorting out relations,
Identifications, will rise to a new level and the smell
Sense will play a larger role. And there are
Safety concerns, too, emerging as you are
In an adverse time. But you're not
Starting from scratch, you know how
To do it and have done it for some time--
Though who's to say if there are any more
Shoes to drop? You're under way
So let's move on, you figure, knowing
The dangers and the rate of complications
Will not decrease. You set sights on lifting
The happiness index any way you
Can--for good things, you realize, can
Be measured, as long as you don't let people
In who might bring bad influences.
…Cheered by the results, you start
Seeing yourself sitting pretty, with everyone
Well placed to benefit. From your hot seat,
The balloon is going up for a wider view,
And falling into place wherever you turn
Is the area that doesn't change no matter
Which way the wind is blowing. So you
Breathe a sigh of relief and press on,
Paying no attention to the man behind
The curtain, to the grumbles in
The audience. All you want now
Is for everyone to see the joy you have
In getting to where you're going,
For you've just taken your first step to
Understanding the other side…
(Just when you thought it couldn't get more
Unbearable, aren't you glad
You finally came to the door? You were
About to give up and go home.)
Now when you see an opening,
NOTES OF A NATIVE SON
As I lay dying, America
--O tender is the night--
I can hear the sound & the fury
from my sanctuary
in another country,
I can see my lives and how
I lost them this side of
paradise (no victim, I),
I can see my homecoming,
my family reunion, America,
just above my head,
I can see the beckonings
of the face of an angel,
I can glean from the
ways of the hour other
voices, other rooms, a further
range in the clearing, where
a witness tree stands,
an empty mirror, an open head.
And I can see the other side
beyond the gates of wrath, America,
where men and angels
at the end of the world
make final payments in the
company of women,
their eyes watching God.
I can see across the river
and into the trees, America,
how the winner takes nothing
--ah sin--how the shadow man
with a one-way ticket leaves
dust tracks on a road
(not without laughter),
notes of a son and a brother
at the edge of the body,
and how misery--a bag of bones
on the road in different seasons --
is now the long walk day by day
of the boy I left behind me,
past the people of the abyss
--the armies of the night--
now the running man
running against the machine,
running in the family
on existential errands,
spreading the gospel
according to the son,
of a new life on the
of the progress of love
in the skin of a lion,
of a tenant in the house
Oh America I can see
coming through slaughter,
riot, rage, dred, half-lives,
my wicked wicked ways,
wounds in the rain, aloneness,
a tangled web, the winter
of our discontent,
something to declare,
something I've been meaning to tell you:
Oh America, beloved America,
who do you think you are?
Letting go, crossing the water
--the awful rowing toward God,
to a God unknown--
making it new, America,
a twice-told tale,
like the old man and the sea
surfacing in the time
of the butterflies, home
sweet home burning bright
-- raise high the roofbeams! --
Joshua then and now
in dubious battle,
a dog's mission --
to honor the difficult,
the greater inclination,
the long dream the world over,
here and beyond,
of the children past
the age of innocence, and
certain people possessing
the secret of joy--
of representative men,
a tramp abroad,
my life and hard times,
black love, black love
--white man, listen!--
no executioner's song,
the fruit of the tree,
one of ours.
A MAMAIST DIVE
In over your head remembering the dead?
Fear is not an option plunging to the limits and
Putting legacy on the line for big payday.
In order to sound the depths (no chance to cash in
On these angels), you must go
To the verge of identity all your own, raising risk
Of pressure (could mean trouble). But when disheartened, hang on.
You're not trying to invent utopias.
Rather, "It's a test to see how far you can go,
If you grow on the earth in different ways."
These are great depths of yours, currently
Being plumbed, whose proceeds will go
To fund growth…until reaching bottom,
Where the dead tell you:
Don't damn the old money before ensuring
There exists sufficient supplies of the new.
But time now to come back up for air, for a crowded world,
As you make a beeline for the surface
To (scientifically) determine which states of being
Truly belong, knowing as you do now
There are mysteries you'll never know,
Mysteries that stay hidden in nature's darkness,
Like a light.
ON THE MYSTERIES OF THE TITLE LEAVES OF GRASS
In his essay on Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams writes that
"Leaves of Grass was a good title for a book of poems,
especially for a new book of American poems. It was a
challenge to the entire concept of the poetic idea, and
from a new viewpoint, a rebel viewpoint, an American
viewpoint. In a word and at the beginning it enunciated a
shocking truth, that the common ground is of itself a poetic
With Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman, to be sure, breaks the old poetic tradition apart and makes a space for himself. It was a sharp, clean break, as Williams tells us. How he accomplishes this huge task is beyond the scope of the present essay. We shall focus instead on the title Leaves of Grass, which serves as a threshold, a portal through which the reader journeys to enter the space Whitman succeeds in making for himself.
Whitman's decision to use the title "Leaves of Grass" for his lifework must be considered a strategic one, a decision made consciously from the very outset and which, though a notorious reviser, he was to leave unchanged through thirty-five years and some nine editions of the book. It is an ample, sensuous and earthy title, but at the same time something about it prompts critic Harold Bloom to call it Whitman's "enigmatic title." 2
The title consists of three words: "leaves"--a noun; "of"--a preposition--and "grass"--another noun (and object of the preposition). This three-word phrase presents the reader with twin symbols: "leaves" and "grass"-that will serve as touchstones for the poet's (and reader's) imagination throughout the book. About the twin symbols more will be said later.
Whitman, with his pitch-perfect ear, exploited this noun-preposition-noun phrasing often and well, and examples abound on almost every page, including: "knit of identity," "peep of the day," "blab of the pave," "sluff of bootsoles," "plenum of proof," "twin of my vision," "fakes of death," "tokens of myself," "orchards of God," "grave of rock," "pulse of my nights," "bafflers of graves," "encloser of things," "nostrils of death," "bits of the eucharist," "ashes of dung," "weeds of the sea," "sparkles of starshine," "howls of dismay," "bath of birth," and "passkey of hearts."-to name but a few. These examples should suffice to give a sense of Whitman's reliance on this trope as a rhetorical device vital to this poet's style and thoughts
The "leaves" of the title is, of course, a pun indicating not only the leaves as grass, but also the leaves as the poems or pages of a book. This trope of the leaves of a book recalls the medieval Italian poet Dante who, at the end of the Divine Comedy, envisions the universe to be
…bound in a single book by love
Of which creation is the scattered leaves 3
The word "leaf," as we learn from the dictionary,4 derives from the Latin liber, meaning "book." By definition "leaf" is both (1) a lateral outgrowth from a stem, and (2) a part of a book or folded sheet containing a page on each side. Leaves is a totally authentic image for paper since it is from leaves that paper was originally made. The work, then, is to be both a work of nature (poems as leaves) composed of "words simple as grass,"5 and also a work of literature (leaves as poems). It's as if at the entrance of his book Whitman both shows his hand and keeps his cards close to his vest. Through the use of this pun, Whitman situates us in a world where growing and developing and living are tied to reading and writing and communicating. Establishing connections of meaning is the basic activity not only of literature, but of life itself. As Whitman says in an unpublished inscription to the reader:
No leaves of paper these must prove but lips for your sake freely
If the leaves pun is merely a coincidence, it is the happy coincidence of a poet in touch with the workings of his creative unconscious. Most likely, however, Whitman knew well what his title was up to. The use of the pun in the title is proof in action of the double-think so characteristic of a poet who calls himself poet of the body and poet of the soul and is also evidence, perhaps, of Whitman's implicit faith in even the lowest, most grovelling kind of wit, as Dryden called the pun, to help heal the rift between the pre-lapsarian mind and post-lapsarian mind. Or as Walter Redfern, quoting Gilman, says:
By wedding opposing perspectives into a single image (the
witting artist) is partially able to repair the split suffered in
the Fall-to approximate the unity of the divine mind.7
The pun as "an intuition of hidden depths or traps" 8 points us first inward, to where meaning is created, then back out to the world to where meaning is fulfilled. For on one level we are to enter the plant world, the vegetation realm of abundant growth; but on another level we are to enter the man-made realm, the domain of literary creation. If the title's pun draws attention to the artificiality of the poem as a work of art, to its status as a verbal creation, it also tells us that these leaves are nonetheless to be natural as grass, made of the stuff of nature. The deliberate ambiguity of the pun puts the reader on full notice: We will have to work to get at the meanings of the poetic discourse, meanings that will be multiple and complex yet firmly based in reality.
The pun of the title also slows the reader down, urging him not to go too fast lest he miss what's important. The reader needs to loafe, too.
The pun in the title forces us to backtrack, to do a double-take, as it were. The territory we are invited to enter, after all, is primal: it is where meaning, communication and the nature of reality are being called into question. In deference to mystery and the ineffable, we must tread carefully.
It is significant that in the title of America's preeminent, defining, essential book-as critics have called Leaves of Grass --there lurks, or loafs, a lowly pun. That Whitman employs a pun for the title of his life's work tells about his attitude towards meaning and language. For a pun, as Walter Redfern explains,
"…is at the heart of language'…Their natural place lives
with metaphor, irony: the very foundation of rhetoric. They
are not a device, an instrument to be grasped or spat upon
at will, but a whole way of feeling, seeing, thinking and
Likewise, Whitman's poetic vision, as glimpsed in the pun of the title, initiates the reader into a different way of experiencing the world. The pun, like the child's question "What is the grass?" in "Song of Myself", is evidence of an experience offered to the mind that it cannot master or fully comprehend. The mind, however, is urged or motivated ("Urge and urge and urge/Always the procreant urge of the world"10) to that place where it may imagine an order in which separate and distinct realities converge, where both the natural leaves of the grass and the man-made poems of the book belong together, and even suggest a negation of opposites and a full integration of contradiction. For once we cross the threshold of the title, we are not to be in the world of the private, privileged garden of Whitman's psyche per se; rather, we are to journey with the poet-speaker on the open road of the world wending our way--now goalless, now motivated--through vast fields of relationships both inward and outward, relationships which for Whitman testify to the reality of the democratic ideal of the body in union with the soul, a path of human wholeness.
The title Leaves of Grass is dynamic, owing in part to the use of the preposition "of". The preposition "of," which coincidentally rhymes with "love," weds the two nouns together as if in an erotic embrace. But "of" negotiates, does not counter-balance, the way the conjunction "and" would. The yoking together of these two words--"leaves" and "grass"--by the preposition "of" moves an erotic charge across the divide separating the two words and immediately brings into view Whitman's major theme of identity (and identity, to be sure, can have many layers): these "leaves" originate with the grass, they are born out of the grass, they are made of grass, they "bubble up" out of the grass, they arise like the grass. Just as the poet described in the Preface is "a man cohered out of the tumult and chaos," 11 so too these leaves, the title announces, are cohered out of the grass, out of the common ground.
The title also recognizes a reciprocal, dynamic relationship between leaves and grass. Visually speaking, leaves are vertical, like an antennae or a hand moving around reaching for sunlight. Grass, by contrast, is more horizontal, like a whole body spread out reclining on a field. The preposition "of" does not just connect the two nouns--"leaves" and "grass"--but also makes for a free, fluid interpenetration between them, as if serving to enfold two different motions--the linear (leaves) and the circular (grass)-- that is a characteristic image of development. The title is virtually a three-word poem. Three words, three syllables, implying ongoing progression. Nothing is opposite in threes. Like morning, noon and night, or life, death and re-birth, threes generate. That's how things grow.
There is irony and poignancy at work in Whitman's use of grass in the title. Grass, after all, is always there, primitive, unnoticed, sprouting beneath our feet. The neglected grass perhaps reflects the neglected parts of ourselves. It is upon this simple identity between the grass, natural yet neglected, and the human unconscious, natural yet neglected as well, that the full force of the title turns.
Grass also gives comfort. We lie down in the grass, we picnic on the grass. We enjoy the pleasures of the common grass, like the poet-speaker at the start of "Song of Myself" loafing and inviting his soul in a field of grass.
Moreover, grass is short-lived. It dies, becoming mulch, compost, fodder, yet is re-born, ever new, ever green, the perennial grass.
"Song of Myself" begins with the poet-speaker "observing a spear of summer grass," and, after the poet journeys through endless orbits embracing more and more of the cosmos, ends in the closing stanzas with the poet-speaker identifying with this aspect of his beloved grass and directing the reader to look for him under his bootsoles in the grass, ("I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love" 12) where he poignantly awaits the reader's understanding. Grass, then, is emblematic of the unlimited circulation, ("the deathless grass, so noiseless, soft and green"13), life constantly sprouting afresh. ("The smallest sprout shows there is really no death."14)
The poet's journey through life ("I turn and talk like a man leaving charges before a journey."15) leaves hints and traces behind in the form of his "leaves," as "tokens of myself"16. These are leavings that endure, that do not leave out but bring in and enfold in a reciprocal process which, for being dialogic, is continuous. Life is nothing if not a leavetaking-- "the leavings of many deaths" 17, and grass is also the "grass of graves," 18 says Whitman. And, lest his meaning be unclear, he adds, "No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times." 19
Furthermore, grass is communal, democratic, vitally alive when en masse. But just as in Blake's single grain of sand, in Whitman's leaf of grass there lies an infinity:
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the
His leaves, or "leavings," ("Leaves from you I yield… tomb-leaves, body-leaves…" 21) would grow naturally, organically, like the grass. Indeed, the word "grass" itself derives from the Old English word growan, which means to grow.
"This is the grass that grows wherever the land and the water
is,/ This is the common air that bathes the globe. … this is the
true sustenance." 22
IV "Grass" (cont'd)
With the title Leaves of Grass, the reader entering Whitman's world is placed at ground level, right in the thick of things, close to the ground, close to the soil, a feeling reinforced soon after in the book's opening stanzas (in "Song of Myself") where the poet-speaker announces:
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer
With this image one feels the earth slowly opening its secrets at ground level, where we as readers will be brought into a knowledge of the way things are 'on the ground,' to know reality intimately, first hand.
A few lines later the poet-speaker is enjoying "the sniff of green leaves and dry leaves" 24, his experience of leaves grounded in his senses. Shortly afterwards a transcendent aspect of the leaves is introduced, as the poet-speaker begins the famous passage in which he recalls his life-changing mystical-sexual experience. This passage is immediately followed by the dramatic sequence of the child bearing a handful of grass to the poet-speaker and matter of factly asking him, "What is the grass?" (a move poet John Berryman calls an "exquisite transition"). The poet-speaker then launches into a series of responses, or guesses as to the nature of grass. The grass could be many things, according to the poet-speaker, ranging from "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven;" to "the handkerchief of the Lord,/ A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped;" to "a child…the produced babe of the vegetation;" to "a uniform hieroglyphic, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones;" to "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." Then the poet-speaker, inspired perhaps by the image of grass as hair, embarks on an even more mysterious passage that guides the reader into depths of expression that are achingly marvelous. It is worth quoting in full:
Tenderly I will use you curling grass,
It may 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 and from women, and from
offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's 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 under the faint roof of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
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 ceased the moment life appeared.
And all goes onward and outward… and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. 25
In this crucial passage the poet-speaker responds to the child by taking the question seriously and pursuing the possibilities of what the grass could be. The poet-speaker is receptive to what even the common ordinary grass has to say to him. This is a human being comfortable in his own skin, unafraid to live down where it hurts, in depths that humanize. He opens himself up and gives himself leave to listen (to his own intuition), allowing the responses to "bubble up" from below.
Though we are still in a world grown from the poet's senses-from all he sees, hears, tastes, smells and touches-- we are also in the realm of what the alchemists called "blessed greenness," a basic cosmogonic principle which, according to Jungian Edward Edinger, "can be equated with the vegetation spirit belonging to the life principle of Aphrodite." 26 It's as if the child posing the question gives Whitman leave to think outside the box and break loose from the constraints of perceived reality. (The image of the child will reappear later in Leaves of Grass, in the poem "There was a child who went forth," and, in a later edition, in "The Child's Reminiscence.")
The child in fairy tales and myth, according to Tom Chetwynd, 27 often represents a threat to the dominant ego who lives in fear of being overthrown. Letting the child in for the purpose of balancing the forces of the psyche is not enough; one must participate in dialogue with the child, as Whitman's poet-speaker demonstrates, in order to make a place in the wholeness of one's being for what the child has to offer. Going too far in this direction however, does not necessarily mean abandoning conscious striving and embracing the carefree, aimless nature of a child. As poet Theodore Roethke says: "Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries."
The child's mental depths, like the poet's, are rich and alive. His simple question calls into question not less than everything. The fact that the poet-speaker does not "know" the answer to the question "What is the grass?" is not the point. The point is, rather, that he lives the question, as Rilke in his Letters to the Young Poet enjoins the poet to do. He dwells in the not-knowing and, by looking at the grass out the corner of his eye, lets the possibilities of what the grass might be slowly, naturally emerge, almost by circling around it. The question-answer or call-response mode inspires the poet-speaker to a series of guesses initially playful, accepting, and baffled, before turning more enigmatic in tone: "This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers." What deepens in shadow, for Whitman, deepens in mystery as well-as soul.
The lowly grass, like the child, is ordinarily so taken for granted that it's hardly seen or heard from, its voice or what it has to say barely audible amid the din and clamber of everyday life. But with the title Whitman announces that we're going to hear from the lowly grass in a big way. These are leaves of grass, poems made of the common grass, of the common stuff of life. Likewise, these are poems grown organically, out of inwardness arising, like grass, grown as much out of desire and longing in the human breast as out of the grass itself:
"They have come slowly up out of the earth and me, and are to
come slowly up out of you. 28
It's perhaps no coincidence, then, that the child bringing a handful of grass to the speaker of the poem appears early on to ask the question that will reverberate throughout the book: "What is the grass?" Among the poet-speakers responses, one response stands out. The grass, he says, "is itself a child….the produced babe of the vegetation." The image of the child, it appears, has come full circle-from being the initiator of the question to becoming part of the answer. The poet-speaker's response bears this out. Though he may not "know" the answer, the poet-speaker responds out of that intuitive certainty of a child, for whom everything feels connected, all experiences linked.
In seeking an answer to the question, the poet-speaker becomes, so to speak, all ears. It's as if he were relishing the inherent instability of the word "grass" while at the same time calling attention to the power which the dialogue between himself and the child has to produce meaning. He listens, and being at one with the ears of the earth, he can hear the tale the grass tells, the leaves of grass whispering its open secret. For what is hidden desires to speak and be heard. As poet Theodore Roethke says, "My secrets cry aloud." The grass, if one listens to it, whispers the truth of its being. Though the grass bows, is humble, is stepped on, is eaten as food for animals, the grass is also tough, hearty, robust, perennial. Indeed, you can pave the ground over with cement all you want, but as soon as there's a crack in the sidewalk, grass will appear, wherever there's an opening, grass will start budding forth. This is the same grass, as American psychologist Thomas Moore 29 says, "that grows up through the cement and in a relatively short time obliterates grand monuments of culture."
The poet-speaker's response to the question "What is the grass?", then, reveals much about the path of the creative intuition, or the path of the poet, proceeding along a course different from that of the intellect, which relies on critical or objective distance from the text. This course, instead, stays with the enchantment of the text, to borrow psycholgist Thomas Moore's phrase. Whitman not only demonstrates in the preceding passage where this course might take us, but also indicates, with a proper degree of uncertainty, what it might mean. We are in the realm of the majesty of the common ground where last things are first things, where for the duration (of the poem) the self not only identifies with but IS the Other. This potential meaning-making dialogue extends to the relationship between reader and poet, too, and also widens out into the relation between the conscious and unconscious. It is a classic example of the rational mind as faithful servant serving, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, the gift of the intuitive mind.
V "Grass" (cont'd)
The image "leaves of grass" is suggestive also of heights and depths.
"With the fresh sweet herbiage under foot, and the pale green
leaves of the trees prolific" 30
says Whitman, as if re-wording and expanding on his three-word title. The image conjured is that of grass growing prolifically, yet solemnly over the graves below, and of leaves fluttering freely in the air above.
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This is the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again. 31
Leaves spring up and come into being by unfolding from the inside out, without losing touch with the grass, with the common ground, with the very source of life itself. It is this body-wisdom, of transience and growth, that the "leaves" are rooted in. As essayist and poet M.C. Richards puts it:
A root moving downward or a shoot moving up… (either
way) we don't lose contact with the earth. .. 32
Like germinating seeds, we grow in opposite directions
simultaneously: rooted in dark earth, opening to sun's
In Whitman's title, where the realm of leaves meets the realm of the grass, are the forces of heaven and earth seen to be joined together and acting on one another, not unlike the circular symbol of the Chinese yin and yang, or as in the Western Hermetic maxim "As above, so below." The poet-speaker (and by extension the reader) standing at the crossing point, at the "simultaneity of Earth and Heaven," as M.C. Richards says, is a person who balances that flow. Here, it seems, are the depths in love with the heights, the leaves overhead in love with the grass underfoot. This dynamic love affair between body and soul, between "leaves" and "grass" is at the heart of Whitman's poetic vision. It is out of this perpetual desire of one realm for the other that the world is what it is and becomes what it becomes. The image of the leaves of grass forever sprouting anew is an image of a source of renewal for the individual psyche. The child's presence at the beginning of the "Song of Myself" remains a testament of that promise of renewal, where meanings are not prior to but simultaneous with utterance or event, always to be renewed in dialogue with the present moment. Thus the title Leaves of Grass, as rich and mysterious as it is profound, is a provocative image if thought of as a picture of psychological dynamism, signifying the unification and harmonizing of the individual personality. Or as Whitman says,
Leaves are not shed from the trees or trees from the earth than
they are shed out of you. 34
1. William Carlos Williams, "An Essay on Leaves of Grass, " Whitman, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Roy Harvey Pearce (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Pretnice Hall, Inc, 1962), p. 146.
2. Harold Bloom, How To Read and Why (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 93.
3. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Vol. III: Paradise, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 392.
4. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
4. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 70.
5. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems 1855-1892, A New Edition, ed. Gary Schmidgall (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 287.
6. Walter Redfern, Puns (Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 5.
7. ibid., p. 6.
8. ibid., p. 178.
9. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, p. 26.
10. ibid., p. 22.
11. ibid., p. 86.
12. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems 1855-1892, A New Edition, p. 348.
13. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, p. 30.
14. ibid., p. 75.
15. ibid., p. 56.
16. ibid., p. 84.
17. ibid., p. 84.
18. ibid., p. 84.
19. ibid., p. 55.
20. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems 1855-1892, A New Edition, p. 223.
21. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, p. 41.
22. ibid., p. 25.
23. ibid., p. 29.
24. ibid., pp. 29-30.
25. Edward F. Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1994), p. 47.
26. Tom Chetwynd, Dictionary of Symbols (London: Aquarian/Thorsons, 1993), p. 144.
27. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems, p. 236.
28. Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).
29. Walt Whitman, Selected Poems , p. 294.
30. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition , p. 42.
31. M.C. Richards, Opening Our Moral Eye (New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1996), p. 55.
32. ibid., p. 71.
33. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition , p. 91.