Friday, June 01, 2007

A child said, What is the grass? -- a Poetry Friday post

Yesterday was the anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth. He was born in 1819, and died in 1892, and, in between, he lived and laughed and loved. Harold Bloom has termed him "the central American poet," although in his day he was underappreciated. His works are full of sexual references (including homosexual and homoerotic references). His master-work, Leaves of Grass, was declared "obscene" by Anthony Comstock, causing Whitman to lose his job in the Department of the Interior. "Central poet" or "depraved monster?" Let us go with Abraham Lincoln's assessment: "Well, he looks like a man."

Today, I give you an excerpt from Song of Myself. It's the sixth poem, which is frequently referred to as "A child said, What is the grass?" because that is part of the first line. I have taken my punctuation tips, spellings and (in the case of a particular line) word choices, from a very early edition of the poem, published in 1905. The particular line where a word difference exists reads, in other editions, "It may be that you are from old people and women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps", but I've gone with the earlier iteration (as did Harold Bloom in his collection, The Best Poems of the English Language. I should note that the punctuation here differs, however, from Mr. Bloom's choices.

To best understand this poem, I strongly urge you to read it aloud. There is a lovely rising and falling within the words that only becomes truly evident when read aloud. And the pauses indicated by commas and semicolons are important to the pacing of this poem, and are too easily skipped by if you merely skim through it.


from Song of Myself

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
&emsp may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of
&emsp their mother's laps;
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
&emsp out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
&emsp to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward -- nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


He moves from tangible grass, in the child's hands, to the general idea of grass in various places, to grass atop graves. And once he's arrived at the graveyard, he considers the dead, buried beneath the grass, and wonders about their fates. The last two stanzas are lovely, I think -- Whitman concludes that the dead aren't dead, but are alive somewhere. That death is only there to lead forward life, and is not standing about waiting to end it. That life is what is real, and death is what dies (or ends) whenever life appears.

And oh, the beauty of those last two lines:

"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

Lucky Walt Whitman . . . he lives on even now, if only through his words.

2 comments:

P.M.Valente said...

This is one of my favorite poems. Elegant, insightful and optimistic. The stanza "This grass is very dark..." has a mystical air which leads well into the last half.

Good pick!

P.M.Valente said...

This is one of my favorite poems. It is elegant, insightful, optimistic. The stanza "This grass is very dark..." has a mystical air which leads into the second half immaculately.

Good pick!