I’m still making my way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, “Inscriptions”. The next poem is “As I Ponder’d in Silence.” But first, I wanted to take a second to tell you that Leaves of Grass is actually available for free at Project Gutenberg, so please bookmark it and check back every week for a poetry discussion!
As I ponder’d in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know’st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then I answer’d,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance
and retreat, victory deferr’d and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the
field the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.
Last week, I was thinking about what Whitman’s contemporaries were doing in the 1850s. It seems to me that Whitman is thinking more about his predecessors, “the genius of poets of old lands” who are menacing him, telling him that War is the only thing worth writing about (off the top of my head, see the Iliad and the long list of war poets on Wikipedia.)
I read this poem as Whitman suggesting that life itself is a war, a battle for life and death, damnation or salvation, and in this way, we are all soldiers fighting for our lives. I will admit that this premise appealed to me; it made me feel included in his poetry. I am beginning to see how his poetry is “democratic” and for the masses.
This poem reminded me of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” which examines who we are and what remained in the aftermath of World War I in a way that extends to the broader questions of humanity and the legacies we leave behind.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
What do you think? Is this a fair comparison?
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! Are you just tuning in? You’re in luck – since this is only the third week, it’s really easy to catch up on Whitman Wednesday posts!