Sunday, October 14, 2012

Walt Whitman - Materiality and Spirituality


I am meditating on the 6th section of Whitman's beautiful poem "Starting from Paumanok" -- it is clear that he is describing what he wants his poetry to be, and what he wants his poetry not to be.  I am stunned by the similarity to Guru Nanak's teachings where materiality is essential to spirituality.  "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems," says Whitman.  This is also the least understood and the most differentiating feature of Guru Nanak's teachings from the prevalent Hindu, Muslim and Christian philosophies.  

Whitman makes several major statements about the purpose of poetry in this piece. The first comes at the beginning of the sixth section, when he proclaims that he “will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems, / And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality, / For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.” Here Whitman questions several traditional assumptions about poetry. Transcendence, universality of emotion, and immortality have long been considered the basis of poetry: good verse, previous generations of poets have proclaimed, situates itself outside its time and place, and through the common ground of human experience ensures immortality for itself and its author. Whitman wants to stand this premise on end. Only by capturing his specific moment and— importantly—a sense of his physical self can he write poetry that achieves a maximum intellectual and spiritual content.
In part there is a very practical reason for Whitman to take this stance: as the open frontiers, factories, steamboats, and printing presses that show up in this poem suggest, Whitman was living and writing during a period of great change. The world was modernizing, and the assumption that a common ground existed between generations had to be challenged. Perhaps too much had changed already, and this suggests that perhaps too much would change in the future for the kind of transcendental, anti- material poems favored in the past to survive. By focusing on the material world Whitman can at least re-create enough of his surroundings to enable a future reader to read the poem sympathetically. In other words, Whitman’s poems ensure their survival by encapsulating their own context.
At the same time, though, Whitman makes statements that seem to contradict this principle of specificity and materiality. As he writes in the twelfth section, he “will not make poems with reference to parts, / But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble, / And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days, / And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference to the soul, / Because having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul.” Again this has to do with Whitman’s sense of the modern world. True to his democratic principles of inclusivity, he feels that “modern” does not necessarily equate with “superior.” While the world may seem to be a very different place than it was in Shakespeare’s time, Whitman understands that he is too submerged in it to be able to evaluate it clearly. Thus it is not for him to pick and choose which things are truly significant, and it is not for him to try to make claims for his specific place and time. Instead, he must try to capture himself as accurately as possible in the moment of perceiving: without judging, he must write down what he sees in its entirety, because everything has some relevance, no matter how hidden it may be. Therefore he cannot choose, say, the Fourth of July to epitomize an American day: he must try to depict all of his days.
The final section of “Starting from Paumanok” seems to leave all of Whitman’s abstract, universalizing aspirations behind. Instead the poet exhorts a “camerado” (a comrade—Whitman loves to invent or bastardize words) to join with him so the two of them, hand in hand, can journey forth. The desire for intimacy spelled out in so many of Whitman’s poems is at odds with his more worldly or materialist writings. Again this can be read as a response to modernity: the rapidly changing world often leads to geographical and social dislocation and therefore isolation. At the same time, Whitman also wants to point out the erotic energy of his poetry. The furious torrents of words force one to try to make connections between them, just as one tries to make connections with other human beings. The sense of movement and urgency in the final “haste on with me” suggests a new way of relating that is technological and physical rather than emotional or spiritual.