The World Through Walt Whitman’s Eyes

I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to read Walt Whitman without experiencing nausea (thank you to my yoga practice for teaching me acceptance and patience). And though I didn’t necessarily appreciate the flow of his language, or the content (or the style, or his over-inflated sense of self), his message and vision of America was quite profound.

walt-whitman

Biography:

Walt Whitman was raised as part of a very Patriotic family. His younger brothers’ names were George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman.

In his early adult life he worked in the printing and journalism fields in Long Island, Brooklyn, and then New Orleans in 1848. His time in Louisiana introduced him to the horrors of the slave trade and when he returned to New York he founded the “free soil newspaper” called The Brooklyn Freeman.

In 1885, Whitman self-published the 12-poems of Leaves of Grass. It was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “extraordinary” due to its departure from the traditional poetic form and its representation of the American voice. However many others believed the work to be informal, overly sexual, and something to be avoided.

Further publishing was interrupted by the Civil War. During this time, Whitman moved to Washington DC in 1862 and spent his later years visiting wounded Civil War soldiers and adding additional poems to Leaves of Grass.

Finally in 1882, Whitman released a new edition of Leaves of Grass which gets significant press coverage. By the time of Whitman’s death in 1892, seven editions of Leaves of Grass had been published with a total of over 300 poems.

Biographical Information from:  http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126

Cool link! A book review written in The Atlantic about Leaves of Grass from 1882:  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1882/01/leaves-of-grass-by-walt-whitman/306166/

Overview:

Whenever we read books written before 1980, we have a certain expectation of how not P.C. the language will be. And while we can usually agree that people back then didn’t know better, or that it’s a sign of how much progress we have made as a society ever since…we can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable in our literary skin.But much to my surprise, Walt Whitman’s poetry is astonishingly progressive. While he certain uses the all-inclusive “man” on occasion, he mentions women and their hard-work and strength throughout his work.

In fact, he mentions a lot of people and nations and creatures being proactive and powerful throughout all his poetry. He seems to be drawing on the Transcendentalist tradition, as we all know, but also infusing it with a message of general social equality. If one believes humans to equal to nature, then one must also see all humans as equal to each other. Take, for example, this poem:

TO A STRANGER. PASSING
Stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon
You,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to
me as of a dream,
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste,
matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours
Only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass,
you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone
or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Upon first reading for us modern-day folks, this is terrifying and Whitman is certainly an evil stalker and we must get a restraining order. No, Walt, we did not sleep together! But once the literally walls come down and the pepper spray is safely tucked back into our handbags…this poem actually speaks loudly of Whitman’s conception of humanity. This stranger knows Walt Whitman from the womb of the earth from which we all come. Simply be being another human, this “stranger” has likely experienced as least some parts of his or her life the same as we have.

Whitman solidifies this perspective in his lengthy ballad-like poem, “Salut Au Mondei”. In this poem Whitman basically discusses with his own conscience the many peoples and nations and cultures all around the world. We are not separate as humans from each other, nor are we separate as life on this planet from the Earth. In fact if we listen and feel enough, we can experience all the rhythms and sounds and textures of the world. Here’s an exerpt:

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in
the west
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it
does not set for months,
Stretch’d in due time within me the midnight-sun just rises above
the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.

Throughout my reading these hundreds of poems, I could see how publishers at the same were reluctant to print such high-sensory, overtly sexual work. Many times Whitman almost seems to be physically making love to the natural world around him, revelling in every sensation, sight, smell, and sound. But it wasn’t promiscuity or even Free Love that he was advocating: it was attention. He wanted people to be aware of natural processes and the heartbeat of the rest of the living world. Plants, animals, the ocean, the dirt…everything was alive and constantly, unceasingly working and moving and creating!

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

– Except from “Song of Myself”

worldstring

After a while, I began to feel as if I had heard his message before. The idea of all humanity being equal…the value of work and workmanship…a general call to action…frequent references to Industry and relationships between workers and society…not to mention, a fabulous beard!

Does this sound like Marxism to anyone else?

karl-marx-1

 

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

“Working men of all countries, unite!

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7084.Karl_Marx

“For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.”

– Frederick Engels in The End of Classical German Philosophy

http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/d/i.htm
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…I happen to believe in free speech. I had just never thought of Walt Whitman being a harbinger of the Communist Revolution.

 

Finally, perhaps no poem in the book made more of an impression on me than this: http://www.bartleby.com/142/130.html”>http://www.bartleby.com/142/130.html

“Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun”, in vivid brightly colored language, explores humans’ inability to decide what they want. The speaker opens saying how happy he/she would be in a country home, surrounded by nature and lush greenery. But then rejects this claim and begs for the exciting, ever-changing diversity of city life.

It’s a lesson we all can learn: Moderation. Balance. We do not always need to choose between two opposite ideas. The world, at least through Walt Whitman’s eyes, is filled to the brim with sensations and emotions and life that we can only hope to experience in our time. Rather than resigning ourselves to one, unchanging environment, however much we love it, there is true reward in exploration, compassion, and change.

The Late Harvest

I haven’t blogged much about my garden lately. For my first time gardening, things have been going much better than anticipate: a very pleasant surprise! While I am not yielding enough to stop buying vegetables from the grocery store, it has exceeded many of my expectations. Last week I actually ran a tomato surplus and had to give away, literally, the fruits of my labor.

photo (8)

For a while I actually contemplated how to handle the extra produce? Should I just eat them? Make some pasta sauce and then freeze them? I was hell-bent on ensuring the proper use of my perfectly scarlet tomatoes (honestly, redder than a crayon. Those orangey things at the supermarket are a different food altogether, if you ask me). I needed to make sure they were going to be used to their fullest potential. So I called up a dear friend of mine and offered to drop off the surplus tomatoes, as well as some fresh and wonderfully fragrant basil leaves.

I gently wrapped the day’s harvest in a brown paper bag, labeled it carefully so that my friend wouldn’t leave them in his car to rot by mistake. Even after I saw him place them carefully on his passenger seat and drive away I couldn’t help but worry that my bright red babies would be neglected and bruised or, worst yet, thrown away!

photo (9)

This got me thinking…if I was worried about a few tiny tomatoes and a handful of basil leaves that I grew for fun getting wasted, how did real farmers feel about food waste in America? It’s quite horrible really…we are an increasingly overweight society that is throwing away food, while people all over the world (and in our own country, too) are starving. I did a little digging…and here is what I found.

40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted (end up in landfills)
80% of all water used in the United States is used to produce food
68% of pantries, 42% of soup kitchens, and 15% of emergency shelters rely solely on volunteers and have no paid staff
(statistics courtesy of http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/hunger-study-2010/key-findings.aspx)

It’s appalling, disturbing, and tragic. I understand that a lot of people don’t believe in global warming and do not see the point in conversation. But this can only be because they view the environment as separate from them.

To truly follow the way of “The General Sweetness” as Thoreau intended, we cannot see ourselves as being so disconnected from our environment, both the natural and social one. This level of waste is certainly bad for the ecological world, but is it not perhaps worse that this level of waste is hurting people? Isn’t it worth it to “go green” and live a bit more conscientiously for the sake of our fellow humans, some of whom have less food on their table then we have in our garbage cans?

I was not intending on being such an advocate when I started gardening. I merely wanted to keep my family a bit healthier and more self-sufficient. But I am slowly seeing how these actions go beyond my own pantry. To grow your food, even a small part of it, is to learn compassion and actively prevent waste. It is to understand where our sustenance and nourishment comes from, and to consciously protect it and encourage others to do the same. And this doesn’t just apply to organic locally grown produce that so many environmentalist advocate for: No matter where the food comes from, or how unhealthy it is, it must not be wasted.

If you are interested in learning more about food waste, these two articles are a good place to start. Also the above link for Feeding America has a lot of information and resources that I found very moving and inspiring.

Washington Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/22/how-food-actually-gets-wasted-in-the-united-states/

NPR:
http://www.npr.org/2012/11/23/165774988/npr-the-ugly-truth-about-food-waste-in-america

Day 1 as a Vegetarian

Becoming a vegetarian hasn’t been very hard…but then again, it’s only been 2 days!   Wednesday, May 8, 2013 was my first day as a vegetarian. The last time I had eaten meat before that day was Sunday, May 5. Just 3 days later, I wasn’t really doing anything so radically unusual to my body. I didn’t find myself craving meat, or having “meat withdrawal” or anything such thing. My body felt the exact same. My mind, on the other hand, felt totally different.

As I made my breakfast, my usual oatmeal and coffee, I knew that it would be some time before I was even confronted with the option of eating meat. We don’t really eat much of it in my house. But something inside of me was different. Maybe it was seeing my plants growing on the porch, or some lingering effects of yoga class, but I actually felt like a cleaner, younger, happier person.

I think there’s a lot of power in sacrifice. It’s the reason why Lent is so meaningful for Christians, or Ramadan is so sacred to Muslims. When you see something that you know you can have, and would be really easy to get, perhaps even in large amount, and actively refuse it, you confront the truth of what you need versus what you want. You empower yourself to live more meaningfully. You are not just having something simply “because you can”. You’re trimming away excess, greed, and gluttony.

Pretty soon, what was at first a “sacrifice” is now a gift. You didn’t lose the chocolate you gave up for Lent: you gained deeper appreciation for it. You didn’t starve yourself during Ramadan: you experienced your meals in a more mindful way. Perhaps even people who forgo their usual second cup of coffee feel empowered by not needing it! By mentally labeling myself a vegetarian, I was acknowledging a future of eating more cleanly, as well as the value of other foods. I found myself eating so much healthier, too! I didn’t drink any soda, or eat too many processed foods. I even found myself watching less TV. Vegetarianism doesn’t force you to do this, of course, and I’m not about to throw out all my electronics and Pop Tarts. But being aware and conscientious about one aspect of your life makes you so incredibly more aware of everything else.

On my first day as a vegetarian, I found myself feeling more satisfied than I had felt in a long time. I thought about all the lobster rolls I wouldn’t be eating this summer on the beach, and the Fenway Franks I’d be passing up at the ballpark this summer, and the Thanksgiving turkey that wouldn’t accompany my passed potatoes and gravy this fall. But I didn’t feel any desire for them. I was actually looking forward to these occasions more than ever!