Around the world with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg

Today was Walt Whitman's birthday.

"Good day for DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] to be ruled unconstitutional," remarked poet friend Robert Peake from London.

A look at how Walt became a poet at all shows the truth of what Robert said:

[Whitman] was working as a carpenter, his father's trade, and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet," which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman later said. "Emerson brought me to a boil."

Whitman began work on his collection Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, "I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air." He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.

Many of Whitman's poems were criticized for being openly erotic. One of Whitman's earliest reviews had called the book "a mass of stupid filth," accusing Whitman of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians." But rather than censoring himself, Whitman added 146 poems to his third edition.

Of course, many of Whitman's poems were openly erotic, but Whitman's most famous line ever, arguably, is his tribute to his mentor, which is also the simplest and best encapsulation of Emerson's philosophy:

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" 
Which to me is about the most useful line of poetry ever. In speeches, in therapy, and sometimes, in remonstrating discussions with one's own self, it's true and consoling, and a reminder of our possibilities.
So let me celebrate this discoverer, this Whitman, with a personal fav from amongst his poems, called Facing West from California's Shores
Facing west from California's shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar,
Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled;
For starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere,
From Asia, from the north, from the God, the sage, and the hero,
From the south, from the flowery peninsulas and the spice islands,
Long having wander'd since, round the earth having wander'd,
Now I face home again, very pleas'd and joyous,
(But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?)  
A century or so later his foremost follower, Allen Ginsberg, wrote an equally searching (if much longer) poem, also worth celebrating. The 92nd Y has a spectacular 1973 recording of Ginsberg reading Mind Breaths, and explaining how he had been inspired by his meditation practice.
It's fascinating, and quite inspiring in its own right. It's as if Ginsberg has evolved Whtiman to a new level, taken his spirit, and put it into practice.
Let me quote a few lines from the Californian part of the journey: 
…out towards Reno's neon, dollar bills skittering downstreet along the curb
up into Sierras oak leaves blown down by fall cold chills
over peaktops snowy gales beginning,
a breath of prayer down on Kitkitdizze's horngreen leaves close to ground,
over Gary's roof, over temple pillar, tens and manazanita arbors in Sierra
    pine foothills
a breath falls over Sacramento Valley, roar of wind down the sixland freeway
    across Bay Bridge
uproar of papers floating over Montgomery Street, pigons flutter down
    before sunset from Washington Park's white churchsteeple —
Golden Gate waters whitecapped scoudding out to Pacific spreads… 
If memory serves, Rolling Stone published this poem, back in the 70's. Wouldn't do anything like that now.             

3 thoughts on “Around the world with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg

  1. GREAT piece, Kit. Really made me think about the power of poetry. About the power of words to live on and continue to carry meaning long after the writer is gone. 100s and 100s of years in some cases. That is pretty friggin’ amazing, if you ask me. I know you didn;t ask me, but I am pretending that you did, anyway!


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