I’ve been to a couple of wonderful poetry events in recent days. On April 27, I had the great privilege of participating in a public reading of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass at the New York Historical Society. In the event, we took over two and a half hours to get through “Song of Myself” and had to go home without reading the shorter poems that make up the rest of the volume. Readers were a range of poets as diverse as Jean Valentine, Gerald Stern, Bea Gates, Richard Tayson, Sapphire, Frank Bidart, Marie Ponsot, and Meena Alexander. It was without doubt the most compelling extended listening experience I’ve ever had (I confess to being a confirmed loather of poetry marathons). “It’s like we’ve just been to church,” somebody said afterwards. A number of factors contributed to the impact: language and structure familiar enough to make listening less taxing than with an unknown text; the unique appropriateness of the collective presentation to both the rhetorical and metaphorical structure of this particular poem; and the excellence and variety of the readers.
Because I was familiar with how many of these poets sound when reading their own work, the Whitman event offered a unique opportunity to experience “voice” in several senses. Had I heard just one reader render Whitman, my attention would have been directed towards the flexible consistency of Whitman’s cadences and rhetorical structures (his voice on the page); given the rotation, I could hear, in the unique reading style of a Meena Alexander or a Marie Ponsot, how Whitman’s voice persisted, in no way diminished but rather rediscovered, via the passing of his language through the medium of another poet’s audible voice. This gave me new insight into the way in which any poet’s reading/performing style represents the audible record of her or his lifelong encounter with words and syntax and meaning.
After experiencing “Song of Myself” in its entirety, I felt almost staggered by the realization of how central to the poem is its eroticism, something that cannot be sufficiently appreciated when the poem is read piecemeal. This is as much a matter of metaphorical structure as of the literal imagery. The poem’s social radicalism seemed so utterly appropriate to the present moment, particularly in the rebuke it offers to American triumphalism. I was glad that I got to read one of the passages celebrating losers: “Vivas to those who have failed, and to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea” (Leaves of Grass, 150th Anniversary edition, Oxford University Press, p. 13). On the other hand, I wasn’t so thrilled with the line about the “heavy-lipped slave”; it seems to me that Whitman’s people of color are far more typecast than the rest of his representative Americans—though I realize the crucial and unusual political gesture contained in this white poet’s insisting, even rhetorically, that they must be included.
Something else got to me, something that always touches me deeply in Whitman: the sense of his reaching out, through the text, for a connection to readers widely separated from him not only in space but in time. I marvel at the serenity with which he contemplates the future as a space of companionship: one in which others like him will experience what he himself has ceased to experience. I marvel at the confidence of his gesture. How is it possible, I wonder, that Whitman, who was so acutely conscious of living in history, did not fear the future, did not imagine it as the possible terrain of unimaginable upheavals? (The question, of course, is both rhetorical and stupid—of course I realize that Whitman lived in his own day, not ours; a day when Earth seemed far more absorptive of the destruction visited upon it—and, too, his own brand of nationalistic optimism, his sincere conviction that American society represented a hopeful innovation, made him feel secure. Despite what I know, that serenity seems to me as unimaginably distant as though it had been produced by life in another solar system.)
Of course there is also Whitman’s spiritual posture to be considered. What of his exultant claim that no moment is any more perfect than any other? Perhaps he would have looked upon our current planetary brinksmanship with the equanimity that ought to follow from such a premise; perhaps he would say that even the failure of global civilization, up to and including the extinction of humanity itself, is to be embraced in the same spirit as all the rest. Perhaps. But I have to say I think it is a severe test of a spiritual posture to ask it to accept a level of destruction that by definition does not admit of any renewal for human beings and nature—the very entities in whose limitless unfolding Whitman found what he considered proofs of an immortality that had nothing to do with privileging an individual “soul.”
“There will always be suffering,” someone says to me, in response to last week’s comments. As though I were down in the dumps because I finally heard the news that an earthly paradise is not around the corner.
Yes, there will be suffering: plenty to go around. But you can’t convince me that there has to be this much.
Think of what we need as a global harm reduction program, sort of like a needle exchange. That’s what these Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties and Kyoto Protocols represent—not anything like the optimal situation, just less likelihood of fatality in the short term.
The striking contrast between Whitman’s temporal confidence and our own typically “futureless” consciousness is especially evident in “To Think of Time,” one of the shorter poems that follows “Song of Myself.” The poet understands time by contemplating death as the passing away of his own individual consciousness, to be replaced by the consciousness of others:
To think how eager we are in building our houses,
To think others shall be just as eager..and we quite indifferent.
(Leaves of Grass, 150th Anniversary edition, Oxford University Press, p. 54).
A poem published after the 1855 edition, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” reaches out even more explicitly, in an amazing gesture reassuring the future reader of the poet’s affection as it imaginatively projects the unbroken nature of human time through an incantatory summoning of the physical world that is to be shared by endless generations:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west,
and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small….
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or
ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt….
(Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, Penguin Education, 1975, pp. 192-193)
The contemporary poet who would attempt a similarly capacious gesture toward the future is in a fix. Last Saturday I heard Alicia Ostriker read at the Ear Inn, from her new book No Heaven. The book contains a number of decisively “political” poems; I thought I detected a note of near-apology in her voice as she mentioned that fact while introducing one of her selections. (If I’m right, I interpret her tone as understandable defensiveness, not about content—she’s braver than that—but rather about having the temerity to do something that contemporary American poetry is not supposed to do on pain of being considered insufficiently arty.) One poem she did not read is called “From the Moon”; it adopts the distant view and speaks of the future in terms of “they,” not “you.” It begins, “Our excellence will be so obvious,” and ends:
They will look at us then,
From afar, hopelessly in love,
They will gaze at our great grave.
(No Heaven, University of Pittsburgh Press, p. 111)
This poem makes use of what I call the Archimidean point of apocalyptic narrative—the fiction of survivors whose perspective must be privileged in order for the story of The End to make sense, or even be told at all. But it’s a terribly cold gesture; although the unspecified gazers might be transplanted earthlings, “they” are not “us” but exist in an irreparably alien future.
A piece I love that does accomplish a credible modern version of Whitman’s time-spanning, community-conjuring gesture is Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem.” It opens:
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories….
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
(The Speed of Darkness, Random House, p. 37)
The poem’s past tense description implicitly promises that the “unseen and unborn” will duly arrive. It does not take this arrival for granted as a natural fact, but considers it as a function of loving, imaginative effort against the odds:
…I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
The poem’s closing line, “I lived in the first century of these wars,” paradoxically offers hope in its insistence that the warring world will carry on—and with it, the effort to realize those as yet “nameless” values. I find it somehow haunting that Rukeyser, unlike Whitman, does not presume to speak to a future “you,” but allows us to infer our proximity to her through the image of a poem as a signal capable of summoning into being some sort of meaningful community, even across distances that might be interstellar.
5/9/05: The government of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has “asked Australia and New Zealand to accept its citizens as the sea swallows their island,” given conservative projections that global warming will cause the ocean level to rise by about a foot over the next 45 years, according to Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan (“Before the Flood,” New York Times Op-Ed).