Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – Class Five: Compost

The reading for today’s session Chris, it takes us into so many
passages that have to do with things coming apart
and then coming back together again. I think of section 20, the amazing
question “Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude; How is it I extract strength from the
beef I eat? What is a man anyhow? What amd I? What are you?” And there’s that question that in some
ways is the generating question for Song of Myself, remind us again that Song of Myself
in the 1855 edition, the only title was
Leaves of Grass. It was the same title as
the book of poems and it’s the organizing metaphor for the poem itself and that metaphor is a very deep one because it is the ecological origin of life. I mean the answer to Whitman’s
question here, “how is it I extract
strength from the beef I eat?” the answer is because the cow is eating the grass.
And what is the grass? Another question in the poem that we’ve
already seen, the grass is all dead who are now speaking and uttering in a million
tongues as that grass comes up and the cow eats
the grass and we eat the cow and we die into soil again and so
we have this endless cycle in Song of Myself of what Whitman would later call compost. -And that composting is the subjective of this session So if we are connected from the beginning time, atom to atom, there’s some way in which atoms are eternally being composed and decomposed, what does Whitman do with this? -Yeah, well, Whitman of course writes a poem that publishes the
year after the 1855 Leaves of Grass, the year after the poem that would come to be called Song
of Myself was published, and that poem was apoem that eventually
he would call This Compost!, a poem about compost. About what certainly struck readers at the time as the most
unpoetic subject you could write about, a compost pile, and how then the entire world is a compost. We were talking last
session about the way the atoms are continually moving to create what we think of
as material objects but in fact if we stand back for moment in time and run a camera across the
material world everything begins shifting. Whitman realized that if we think about the world in that way we begin to see that literally everything is compost. He loved that word, compost, and I think
the reason he loved that word, and it’s all through
Song of Myself, is it’s exactly the same roots as compose, right? And
composition. It’s one of those great
words that in its roots has both putting together, coming together
and coming apart, they’re both in the roots of the word compost, and when you
think of composing, composing a poem, let’s say, I think of Whitman’s love of the dictionary, Webster’s dictionary, dictionary
making in the modern sense was something that
was happening during whitman’s time and he loved the idea of the American dictionary, the dictionary of
the American language as Noah Webster was calling it, and this
new dictionary, every time Whitman would get new
edition of Webster’s he’d immediately sit down with it and he’d say
“this is amazing, look how much bigger it is than the last one! There are more words and it -He’s filing into, putting into his notebooks
with all the stuff he’s picking up off of the pavement as he walks
along the street -He actually has notes in his notebook to
create a dictionary, he starts writing his own dictionary and he starts thinking about
what the real dictionary would be, he calls it the
real dictionary, which is the dictionary that would be impossible to write
because it would include all of the slang usage, all of
the new words that were being generated by the
minute in the culture, all of the new connotations that were
being added to words as they get used, in
other words instead of dictionary as a prescriptive device a dictionary is a descripted device,
something that’s describing the way the language is altering and shifting. For whitman
when he would look at the dictionary he would say “Here it is, this is the compost heap of all poetry. it’s a compost heap of
everything that can and has been written. -And will be written
-And will be written. The language will continue to grow, there will be terms that we don’t know now that
someday people will write, but all of the poems of the past, if you
break them down into their elements, they’re all here – here they are – and this
is what we’re continually doing as a poet, we’re reading the poetry of the past and breaking it all down and
reconstructing it as a poetry of the present. -Just as the fossils that are being discovered around this time are
pointing him back to the beginning of time on the physical level, the language is that other part of what belongs
to us from the beginning of time. -Absolutely, this is why Song of Myself
becomes the first poem in history to have a dinosaur in it, because dinosaurs are in
nineteenth-century invention. the theories of time and theories of evolution that
would allow the interpretation of fossil records to generate dinosaurs, that all was
happening in Whitman’s lifetime. He’s seeing the world just
explode open, explode open in space and time, astronomical discoveries, geological
discoveries, evolutionary discoveries, all that
were just blowing this record of what had seemed a very
constricted, biblical time and space into a massive, scientific time and space that
allowed for everything and anything to happen. -What was the reaction of readers when
they saw the poem called It’s Compost? -It was again part of the outrageousness of Whitman. What Whitman did in that particular poem was create an “I” at the beginning of the poem that was
repulsed by the world. There’s so much death in the world, this is
a theory that was going around at the time that because the population had increased so
dramatically deaths will increased so dramatically
and pretty soon the entire world would be a burial ground just made up corpses and that the decaying corpses in the
ground would create a miasma of bad air all over
the world that would lead to the decay of the human race and Whitman plays with that “I”, that is he’s saying
“Oh, I’m repulsed by this world” then he digs into
that soil where all the corpses are and
he says “oh my God look what’s growing up out of that! Here
comes the spring, here comes new birth!” then the rest of
the poem is a catalog of all the things that are growing out of
death and so every poem, he would say that, I write is a compost, it’s a composition, it is a poem
that grows out of the taking apart of every poem that has
come before. -And it leads me to think that
some years hence, not long after the first edition of
Song of Myself Lincoln will be consecrated at that
hallowed ground at Gettysburg where so many young soldiers lie buried for eternity, what Lincoln will do in the
Gettysburg address is to try to create a new vision of the United States and it seems
to me that’s what Whitman is doing this from the start with
this notion of composting. -Yeah, he comes back to that notion of
composting at a very crucial moment in his career and it’s at the end of the Civil War when he tries to deal with the fact of a million dead soldiers. He has a section in his book called Memoranda During the War,
it’s called The Million, too, Dead summed up and I always
think of it in relation to Linoln’s Gettysburg Address because in that poem, it starts as a poem and then turns into the longest prose sentence that
Whitman ever wrote, which turns into a fragment, it turns out
not even to be a sentence, but it begins with the subject, the dead, and then it begins to describe and count up the dead, sum the dead up, so The Million Dead, too, summed up, summed up in the sense of here are numbers,
here’s the data, but also summoned up, right, you know,
pulled up out of the ground into the future
because, as Whitman says in that passage, “and every grain of wheat we eat, in every breath we draw, are gonna be atoms of those dead soldiers,
they literally are our sustenance, we have to make our
future out of this deathm, and if we atand back now and say “I’m repulsed by what see”, the future stops. It is only by continually overcoming that sense of revulsion to death and seeing
the things grow out of it, that futures are made out of death, that we move on
-Made out of remembering
-Made out remembering, yeah. Exactly Re-membering.

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