Walt Whitman, a Kosmos

Walter Whitman Jr. was born on May 31st, 1819 in West Hills, Long Island. The birth of Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest… is a more uncertain date but was announced to the world from a print shop in Brooklyn in July 1855.

leaves of grass 1855

As you can see from this picture I took of the copy in the National Gallery in Washingtion, D.C., the author’s name does not appear on the title page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, just an image of his avatar, a word we use very casually in the virtual realm we inhabit these days. The name “Walt Whitman” does not appear until several hundred lines into the text of which this “kosmos” is composed.

young WaltWalt Whitman, 1854

In this picture, taken the year before the publication of Leaves of Grass, you see the poet, the rough kosmos intentionally posed. Previously, Mr. Whitman, sometime journalist and newspaper editor, had been a bit of a dandy, a city slicker…

Walt 1848Walter Whitman, circa 1848

 Walter, Sr., did work as a carpenter, but his son, though he worked on occasion as a typesetter, had soft hands. Walt was just the sort of guy you would find today draped over a cup of milky java at the espresso bar. Today Walt would likely have an iPad, rather than the little notebook bound in green, in which he wrote the words

Observing the summer grass…

The slacker with soft hands reinvented himself as “one of the roughs” and found within himself “miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.”

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul, 
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, 
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there are millions of suns left, 
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books, 
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, 
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself. 

I have heard what the talkers were talking . . . . the talk of the beginning and the end, 
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end. 

There was never any more inception than there is now, 
Nor any more youth or age than there is now; 
And will never be any more perfection than there is now, 
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. 

Urge and urge and urge, 
Always the procreant urge of the world. 

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase, 
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . . always a breed of life. 

To elaborate is no avail . . . . Learned and unlearned feel that it is so. 

Sure as the most certain sure . . . . plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams, 
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical, 
I and this mystery here we stand.

The miracle exploded into ecstasy out of nothing like a one man big bang, and in its inflation became the “kosmos” proclaimed in Leaves of Grass. Walt lived in its afterglow the rest of his life, revising, adding, revising, adding, modifying the vessel of the literary persona as he aged into the “Good Grey Poet.”  Even for poets who don’t read, the body electric of the eidolons of Walt the Kosmos exist as a sort of cosmic background radiation like the cold remnant glow of photon decoupling that suffuses the visible universe.

Copy and paste this in your hearts, poets:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . . . . . . The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured . . . . others may not know it but he shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches . . . . and shall master all attachment.

RESIST OBEY WALT WHITMAN

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2 responses to “Walt Whitman, a Kosmos

  1. what, no more lash of the tongue over Walt’s phlogiston and rodomontade ?
    [ of course those pale against the example you linked of Wm. D. O’Connor ]
    You and I on a teeter totter over the years, suspended on the axle of
    Whitman. “Photon decoupling” indeed. Needless to say, I appreciate your eulogy.
    Never had seen the pic of Walt as young dandy. Reminded me
    overmuch of Jared, c. 1986. Which led me to suck in my breath
    and reformat some memories.

  2. The “dandy” image I’ve known of since the Kaplan biography came out in the early 1980s. Does remind one a bit of the former Jared, doesn’t it? The 1854 portrait has a strong resemblance to my friend James as young man. There is an essay in examining the way Whitman manipulated and adjusted his “avatar” in all the photographs he posed for over the years as his own sense of “Walt” the poet of Leaves of Grass changed with age and circumstance, and the actual experience of psychic inflation or epiphany or whatever it was that triggered the cascade of “phlogiston and rodomontade” receded in time.

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