O Pioneers! Chapter 6 shows how, in his final writings, Whitman struggled to recover his soulful connection to the earth and thereby renew his inspiration.
In his many moods, Whitman appears, in the reading I offer here, not only as one of our most powerfully creative poetic experimenters but also as a representative figure in American culture. His difficulty in sustaining a vision of nature is not so much a personal failure as an indicator of the immensity and difficulty of the task he set for himself. We continue to struggle with the same issues, above all how to create a discourse worthy of the earth—our home, our mother, our what? And we can continue to profit from retracing the steps of our poetic forebears, none of whom is more problematic, or more rewarding, than Walt Whitman.
Troubles in the relationships among physical objects, people, and abstractions haunt American ecopoetics from the nineteenth century down to the present time. For his part, Whitman follows Wordsworth in resisting the personification of abstractions—treating ideas as if they were people.
But problems arise in Leaves of Grass with the status of natural objects. Their standing as earthly beings is sacrificed on the altar of allegory and metaphor.
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To some extent, as a human art poetry cannot avoid participating in this kind of extractive or acquisitive discourse. Perhaps the most we can ask is that ecopoetics seek a heightened consciousness, a reconsideration of verbal practices that involve categorizing, naming, or identifying with natural objects. At several moments in the first two editions of Leaves of Grass and , Whitman arrives at this point, pausing to consider his relationship to the earth as a poet and a human being.
He comes face to face with certain phenomena in nature that cause him to admit his puzzlement and incapacity, even terror. His poetic response anticipates a recent theoretical trend in literary and cultural studies—the consideration of things as a category distinct from physical objects, abstractions, and people.
It is the unspeakableness of things that Whitman most commonly dramatizes during these arresting moments.
Things suggest the unspeakable in at least two senses that many of us learned directly from our parents. A third sense of the unspeakable thing is one I gleaned not from home but from excursions into Eastern mysticism and Beat poetry. Jack Kerouac provides a fine example in On the Road. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it —everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. Kerouac It shifts attention or points to a context, which in this case is unspecified and thus leaves the reader searching see Benveniste; see also Jakobson.
As for the unspeakable in the sense of morally unfit to be mentioned in public, we need only remember that a contemporary reviewer of Leaves of Grass invoked the old legal formula for sodomy as the crime too horrible to be named among Christians. The records of crime show that many monsters have gone on in impunity, because the exposure of their vileness was attended with too great indelicacy. In Calamus , as in conversations with friends like Horace Traubel, Whitman seemed to be guarding a secret, hinting toward his homosexuality without confessing it directly.
At the third point of incapacity, Whitman dramatizes what seems to be a version of the mystical ineffable in metaphors mingling things sexual, sentimental, and metaphysical. Losing their ordinary functions and anatomical coordinates, the heart and tongue in this passage become uncannily thingish. The poem stands as perhaps the most remarkable nineteenth-century contribution to the poetry of ecology in America. He starts not with affirmations of identity or kinship, or with abstractions and distance, but with a nearly physical repulsion.
Out to refresh himself in fine Romantic form, he is confronted with a thing unspeakably offensive: SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest, I withdraw from the still woods I loved, I will not go now on the pastures to walk, I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea, I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me. The window becomes something to be reckoned with to be cleaned or cursed. It emerges from transparency to become a thing.
When we have to protect air or buy water in plastic bottles, they become things that have stopped working rather than the transparent media of life. The nature lover finds the object of his affection fouled. What was once beautiful and comforting becomes hideous and disturbing; what was familiar, strange. In his revision of the manuscript, he rejects the apostrophe to the mother, refusing kinship with a thing so alien, so toxic. He is left with a crisis of identity, the health of the landscape now suspect, his own confident safety threatened by an obsessive concern with infection in a kind of antipastoral gothic fantasy: O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
Resentment in a Body
How can you be alive you growths of spring? Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you? Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead? Where have you disposed of their carcasses? Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat? LG —92, — Another thing that has stopped working in this first movement of the poem, which encompasses the entirety of Section 1, is the Romantic or transcendental attitude according to which the poet understands himself as the confident son of the earth. And yet the voice of the poet remains tempered by the experience; the confident transcendentalism seems never completely recovered once it is broken.
I reach to the polished breasts of melons. And as to you life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths, No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.
By refraining from naming, the poet suggests a repositioning of natural things just beyond the reach of human intelligence and control. As long as it remains unnamed, it remains to a large extent unknown and thus continues to block the path of the knower, a thing unaccounted for, which persists in demanding attention. I would argue instead that Whitman explores the possibility of an ecological theory of communication that he does not develop systematically.
Words are signs of natural facts. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of spirit. But one clear implication for ecopoetics is that, used with poetic diligence, language can lead human beings to the discovery of spiritual significance in nature. CRE —n Later dropped from the poem, the lines reject the linearity of the Emersonian logic in which human words signify natural objects that in turn signify spirit.
Instead, the earth and all the things of the earth past and present are themselves called words. No, the real words are more delicious than they. In both cases, he addresses the reader directly and offers a surprising assertion.
What we have then is a metaphor in which the figurative element the word is named but the literal referent something the earth has or does is left unclear, in the form of a riddle or a mystery. The earth has or does something that corresponds to what people do when they communicate with words, but this something cannot be communicated directly in language. With this riddling approach, Whitman seems to be seeking ways to bring the reader into contact with things and states of being for which there are no adequate words. But hints throughout the poem suggest the possibility of a kind of communion.
But mostly, we see only her smooth broad back turned to us and must wonder at the true nature of the face. The earth is dumb and yet her words never fail her children. Again we have the riddle, the conundrum, the paradox. Whitman may well intend to present a broad and rolling surface of language, largely impenetrable like the earth itself. As in the sayings of mystics and spiritual teachers, he urges us to understand not with the mind but with the soul. The earth speaks to the soul, not the ear.
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If they had not reference to you in especial what were they then? The implication is clear. The soul shares with the earth a system of language and meaning distinct from what we normally understand to be human language and logic. LG —92, When it is welcomed, the soul does not rise from within but comes over the poet like a demon or a muse, possesses the poet, ravishes the body, taking control of the senses.
The soul itself is linked to the earth; it is an environmental agent that overtakes the ordinary life of the inspired individual and makes everything strange and new. The heart is the womb of the poet that, inseminated by the soul, delivers the vision of an animated world.
The vibrations of the smallest leaves drooping in the fields, ants with their miniscule movements, weeds growing and spreading, bring impressions to the poet that seem at once full of meaning and difficult to fathom. Meaning accrues and with it beauty when the body is understood as replicating the forms of the earth and is thus bound to the earth. The transformation or defamiliarization of the body defuses what might otherwise be the typical associations of a nineteenth-century Anglo-American man surveying the things of nature.