Hey, I found my notes! And it only took two weeks.
Anyway, Mark Doty’s lecture was titled “Whitman in Tears” and was born of an essay he wrote for Virginia Quarterly Review on the anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass.
The first thing Doty discussed was the poetic tone in of Leaves of Grass. It was very much a voice of confidence and intimacy (an “I know you” voice) and it was a revolutionary way of speaking to readers. Who dares to speak in this way? was the reaction of many.
The first publication of Leaves of Grass was a volume that Whitman self-published (at age 36, although photos of him at that time show him looking quite grizzled). He didn’t even put his name on it. When Mark said this, the audience laughed, as if it was a show of Whitman’s ego. But I understood it as a lack of ego–like potters who choose not to sign the bottoms of their pots. Lots of famous Japanese potters did this and it was to show that they were part of the culture…that they were one with the world of art and the act of creation. It’s actually a very complex concept to try to describe, but it was clear to me along the lines of “I, as creator, am nothing. I am merely the conduit for this greater force: creativity.” And I understand this feeling all too well. it’s like that third essence of writing that I mentioned before, the “Where the hell did that come from?” part.
Anyway, Whitman is the father of the wholly American vernacular and used words like “luckier” “stuck up” and “foo-foo” in his poems–unheard of before him. He wanted to speak like an everyman and wished for the widest possible scope of public intimacy. “You” is his most used word. Doty said Whitman communicates with his readers “lip-to-ear.”
Also important to understanding Whitman, is to examine the culture of the times in which he lived. The 1850’s was a really pivotal time in America. There was a whole industry of healing just coming into being: the TB sanitoriums in upstate NY that represented the healing powers of nature; the “science” of phrenology, wherein the bumps on your head could tell a phrenologist what ails you, and even change as you heal; the rise of the cereal empires of Post and Kellogg, who also opened their own vast health-spas that regulated all aspects of diet and exercise as a way to cleanse and cure the body of its many afflictions.
It was also the beginning of the self-actualization movement and Whitman represented the belief in a “Cosmic Consciousness” a term that psychologists use to explain the fusion between the self and the universe. What today we might call “being one with the world.” I believe many artists understand this feeling…this being plugged in to something greater…it is a very human craving, being transported, being connected with something so vast that we cannot comprehend it…also the appeal of religion…which similarly experienced a surge of popularity in late 1800’s.
Doty spoke about Whitman’s wracking self-doubts, despite his poetic voice that demanded, lip-to-ear, that we listen. Doty asked us an important question: what constitutes a useful amount of self-doubt? Too much self-doubt paralyzes us. Too little makes work that is agrandizing. The doubter, he said, is in search of what remedy for uncertainty can be found on earth. (Think about it for a minute. It’s lovely.)
And he used the following passage from Whitman’s “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” to illustrate Whitman’s sense of being one with nature/the universe, to illustrate his creative self-doubt, and to show us a breathtaking point-of-view shift that occurs at the end of the poem when the voice of the poet is at once both the dead creatures at the edge of the sea and the other self–witness to the dead bodies, so that he is both diembodied, but also within his body, the eye in two positions at once: the eye that watches the eye.
As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life
As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
Fascinated, my eyes reverting from the south, dropt, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide,
Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok there and then as I thought the old thought of the likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d with that electric self seeking types.
(Skipping a stanza, here comes the writerly shame…)
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.
I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
(Skipping to the POV shift…my apologies, Walt.)
Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endless cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feat as I touch you or gather from you.
I mean tenderly by you and all,
I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.
Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoy’d hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a tiny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifting at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets,
We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out before you,
You up there walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet.