Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Song of Myself

This is an address on Walt Whitman and why I love his poetry.

Walt Whitman

Last week the poet Michael Rosen wrote this comment:
I'm probably jumping the gun a bit here, but the press is full this weekend with accounts of what is anticipated to appear in the new guidelines for Primary English.
What seems to be coming up is a requirement that all primary children from the age of 5 should learn poetry by heart.
From the discussions that have been on the radio and television this week Michael Rosen was correct, as part of his Curriculum reform Michael Gove is suggesting that all infant and primary aged children should be expected to learn and recite poetry along with times tables and other facts.
Now as an ex teacher I can see the value of learning things by rote and that includes poetry, but when it comes to poetry I am a little unsure as to how it will affect children’s future attitudes if it is not handled properly.  I am sure there are those of us here who can remember being made to learn verses by heart when we were at school.
I certainly can, and I never did find it easy.  Times tables I could manage but poetry – well I never did manage to commit any to memory. 
Did any of you?
And I wonder how many of you actually read poetry now today and if you do was it because of this learning experience?
As this news played out I began to think about where my love of poetry came from – because as most of you are aware I do love poetry.
Well it didn’t begin during my school years at all.  No, I know the exact year when I turned to poetry and began to read it.  It was 1989 and I was 40 years old.  It happened when I went to see a film that was released that year, starring Robin Williams – it was called ‘The Dead Poets Society’.
In it Williams plays the part of one John Keating, a rather different teacher of English, especially poetry.   


One of the most memorable speeches for me was when John Keating says to the boys he is teaching:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?’

It was a mixture of those words and the image of Robin Williams striding about saying call me: "O Captain! My Captain!," in reference to a Walt Whitman poem, that set me off reading poetry for the first real time.
Now I must admit I didn’t take to Walt Whitman’s poetry then, it was, I think, far too American and I didn’t really understand it.
It took me finding the Unitarian church, a decade or so later, to begin to appreciate Whitman.  Not that he was a Unitarian, no he was a Quaker if anything but he has even been called an atheist.  However he did move in Unitarian circles and was friends with people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

And the Transcendentalist movement, to which Whitman belonged, was firmly rooted in the Unitarian tradition.
And then, of course, there is his tangential association with Bolton Bank Street chapel, which has connections with a local Whitman society, which has been in existence, on and off, for over a century. In 1887 two Bolton men, J.W. Wallace and Dr. John Johnston, sent birthday greetings to Walt, and to their great surprise and delight, he responded, and a regular correspondence – over one hundred letters – ensued, until the poet’s death five years later. Now, on the nearest Saturday to Walt’s birthday, 31st May, there’s an annual Whitman walk, in which participants wear sprigs of lilac, Walt’s favourite flower, and make frequent stops to read from Leaves of Grass and to drink from a ‘loving cup’. On the Sunday following there is a service in Bank Street Chapel, to commemorate the Whitman Society’s association with the Unitarian movement.  
   What is it in Whitman’s poetry that was so appealing to the Unitarians of 19th century Lancashire and to contemporary Unitarians worldwide? One reason is his independent, almost revolutionary, spirit. His poetry, in both style and content, is radically new. His verse is free, direct, accessible, untrammelled by conventional decorative features such as rhyme and rhythm. Emerson recognised that Whitman’s was the first authentically American poetic voice. Before him, American writers, including Emerson himself, had copied European models, but Walt struck out on his own. ‘Resist much, obey little,’ his words of advice to the American states, could be taken as the motto of his own life and his own work.’ (Bill Darlison)


Walt Whitman is not an easy read, his poetry is full of uncomfortable things and a lot of it was not allowed in print at first because it is sexually explicit.  Also his poems are extremely long and I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to read them whole but maybe try dipping in and you find such wonderful delights as:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

And it is verses such as that second one that call out to me now as they speak of the soul.  How Whitman can be called an atheist I do not know for his poems are full of the soul.
Audrey Addison Williams  says: “My prayer for all of humanity is that we learn to live from a place of "soul". In my work, I am stunned by the number of people who have no idea about the longings of their heart and soul. They live like robots, doing almost mechanically what they feel they must do. Than we spend billions on medicine and doctors trying to figure out why we are in so much pain. Today, listen to your heart, connect with your soul. Your soul has all the wisdom you shall ever need.

Whitman’s most famous poem, that I read from in our reading is the ‘Song of myself’ and it is full of words of wisdom that speak of life, of love and for me of God.

Those words at the end of that verse I read:
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd
    by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.”
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
These words sum up my whole theology. His God is probably not the God of Christianity, but Whitman’s poetry is drenched in what we might call God-consciousness. As the Rev Bill Darlison says:
This may be pantheism, deism, panentheism, it may even to some be considered blasphemous, but it is certainly not atheism. Whitman has no belief in a static revelation; the genius behind all the great religions is the inexhaustible genius of the human race which is as active now as ever it has been. He doesn’t object to special revelations, but, he says he considers ‘a curl of smoke or the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation.’[Song of Myself] The simplest creature is a manifestation of God, a miracle, a revelation:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars...
And the narrowest hinge of my hand puts to scorn all machinery.....
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Walt Whitman’s poetry gives you a recipe for living.  He tells you first and foremost to be yourself and in the words of Robin Williams, as the teacher John Keating he says in no uncertain terms that Latin phrase ‘Carpe Deum’  which means ‘seize the day’
Seize the day.

Just opening my book of Whitman’s poems at random the poem I found was this:

DAREST thou now, O Soul,

Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,

Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?



No map, there, nor guide,

Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.



I know it not, O Soul;

Nor dost thou—all is a blank before us;

All waits, undream’d of, in that region—that inaccessible land.



Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,

Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds, bound us.



Then we burst forth—we float,

In Time and Space, O Soul—prepared for them;

Equal, equipt at last—(O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.

I could go on - there are so many poems that cry out to be read.  But do I read them because I was made to learn poems by heart as a young child?  No I read them because as an adult I have come to poetry myself.  I have travelled in my own way just as Walt would have wanted me to because as he said:
No one is going to do the hard work for you, you must find the meaning of your life & your destiny yourself.
And so it must be for our children too.
So May it be

1 comment:

  1. Lovely. Gillian and others might like to know that "Toward the Unknown Region" has been set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the British Unitarians in Concert choir under David Dawson's direction performed it in Germany in April 2002.