By-Hearting Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

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I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

Even-stevens. Whitman’s credo works so well in smaller chunks. A whole book of him saying and assaying becomes a tad tedious. But one stanza of his Song to Himself, assimilated with the intimacy of self that he speaks from in this poem (“I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,/The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.”) is sweet.

Learning the poem by heart, this initial rescinding of the distinctions between body and soul transpires in the process of transforming words on paper (the body of the written poem) into an entity of memory or psyche. Or is it the other way around: the soul of the poem becoming embodied?

This switcheroo is intrinsically mysterious, as the Catholic church asserts for that other transubstantiation: “The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ.”

This language of sacrament strikes me as the most apposite for trying to encapsulate what happens when we turn a poem into our lived experience, turn a poem into and towards ourselves, so let us dwell for a moment on those other terms for the eucharist: “trans-elementation” (μεταστοιχείωσις, metastoicheiosis), “re-ordination” (μεταρρύθμισις, metarrhythmisis), or simply just “change” (μεταβολή, metabole).

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And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,

I find this line excitingly problematic. There is a great deal of negation going on here, to the extent of methinks the lady doth protest too much. Nothing, not God? No-thing, no-tGod! I don’t think he’s saying a la Nietzche, Gott ist tott, or if so, only in the Pascalian sense that “nature is such that it marks everywhere, both in and outside of man, a lost God”.

I also get the feeling that the “one” here might refer not just to you or me, but to a “something” or “anything”, that nothing is greater than a single blade of grass, in that nought is 0 less than 1. But where does that leave God, the greatest Nothing we have?

Eddie wonders, as do I, if there is a sense of entitlement here, a kind of elemental narcissism (and maybe Whitman plays on that that where “self is” lies just a letter away from “selfish”? But also, as many of these lines, we come back to them again and again as koans. Even though they are delivered with the declarative assurance of a set and settled credo, these are not Whitman’s 10, or 10,000 commandments. And if they are, surely he doesn’t expect us to follow them as words chiseled into stone and carried down a mountain aloft above one’s head might hold weight in ruling the unruly tribe?

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own
funeral drest in his shroud,

I think here of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness, and this book by Sharon Salzberg, and this one by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. I think of Annie, who said to me after I had recited the poem at Kim Rosen’s Medicine as Poetry retreat that this was her religion. And indeed, you can’t really find a better religious or political creed for that matter than this. When I stood and recited before the group “Then it is only kindness that matters anymore” I thought of Donald Trump, whose chief failing is his tragic unkindness, towards anyone he deems lesser or weaker than him (the disabled, immigrants, women, actually all of us I suspect).

Do you know how long a furlong is? A furlong is 201.168 metres, one-eighth of a mile, 660 feet, 220 yards, 40 rods, or 10 chains. I love the fact that Whitman allows us to walk a good 200 metres before expecting some sympathy to show up in our gaze or in our hearts. He doesn’t say “whoever walks a step without sympathy walks to his own funeral” – that would be confining. He knows we’re not saints. He knows we can be mean and self-obsessed too, so he allows for that in the furlong. Walk 1/8th of a mile he says, and somewhere in that passage, try and feel some sympathy, some kindness towards others and yourself. He also knows that lacking kindness, we lost out more than those who we show our neglect or unkindness to. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15, 1)

I’m sure Jesus had some good teachings on this too.

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And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the
Earth,

Does not this line enact its own message? The alliterative p-p-p-pleasure of all of those p’s. And what of the I.O.U of “I or you”?

Eddie had the brilliant idea, which Eleanor and I didn’t pick up on, that there may be some irony, maybe even bitter irony, in that “pick of the Earth”, especially following on from the funereal bleakness of unkindness. Kind bones or not, we all get our pick, our little patch of Earth in the end, in which to lie.

And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds
the learning of all times,

The eye in its socket, the bean in its pod, it is not only the beauty and mystery of these orbs that challenges academic learning, but also a confounding of forms, where for a moment the eye becomes the bean, the pod an assemblage of orbital bones: Zygomatic, Maxillary, Lacrimal, and Nasal.

And there is no trade or employment but the young man following
it may become a hero,

When reciting this, I like to add “or woman” to young man. I think if Whitman would have been a feminist if he’d been around for the paradigm shift.

And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d
Universe

I think here of my dogchild Max, who makes a hub for the wheel of of my Universe.

And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and
composed before a million universes.

In the midst of such mystical fervency, it’s interesting that Whitman advises coolness and composure. I wonder if he recognises that joy and ecstasy, if not contained, can feel as uncomfortable at a neurological level as depression and anxiety.

Whitman gets top-ranking on bipolarartists.com alongside Plath, Poe, Mingus, Mahler, and Axl Rose (!) for having struggled with the following symptoms: feelings of over-elation or over-joyment; talking very quickly; feeling self-important; feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans; being easily distracted; being delusional; having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking. The perfect aggregate of traits and states for writing rapturous poetry, right?

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