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Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
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Jul 17, 2012

it was amazing

“Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Walt Whitman: one-way enemy of Gnostics; exuberant celebrant of equalized everything – exquisite attendee of the weak, small, different; personally interested in the infinite things of now and the infinite things of history, but never in infinity; interested even in the things that did not exist: “It may be if I had known them I would have loved them”; as much content to be a mollusc as an angel; a forgiver without authority and a prophet without a God; neither proud nor cringing, neither assured nor uncertain; a writer of translucent, self-effacing words. But though grass may dry and be covered in winter, in spring it is never found dead. Just so, Whitman’s grass dies eternally and is to be read just as much when one is skeptical as at all times, as much when one is sure as any time whatever. Not always, but any moment will do. Leaves of Grass is no argument, nor is it a compendium of wisdom, a book of bedecked language, a reassurance or an attack of the assured. “The attitude of great poets” may be “to cheer up slaves and horrify despots,” but it does so not as a polemic or personal affront. It is not strategic; celebrations are not strategic. Birds sing, trees rustle soothingly, thunder breaks the sky, and Whitman composes verse. Leaves of Grass is a song undifferentiated from what it sings about, poesy without distance from its object of beauty. “I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is.” Whitman collapses dualities, binds fragments, and ignores analysis and meaning-making. Meaning he takes for granted, and as for analysis: “To elaborate is no avail . . . . Learned and unlearned feel / that it is so.” There is something in Whitman of the mystical, though he is a mystic of this world; the visions he receives are not those of a heaven, a God, an “outside.” And rather than feeling contained, Whitman disregards any way of thinking which considers such an idea in the first place. So far from such paradigms that distinguish the high from the low and keep secrets for themselves is Whitman that he can say – and think it obvious to say – things like, “Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? / Well I have . . . . for the April rain has, and the mica on / the side of the rock has.” Leaves of Grass is life-affirmation predating Nietzsche, and may be beyond anything Nietzsche could have believed, for it identifies itself so completely with everything that when he says, “I and this mystery here we stand,” he is not speaking about two different things. And so, when a child asks, “What is the grass?” Whitman can only say, “I do not know what / it is any more than he.”
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