Maturity vs. Poetry

Having opened Goethe again after 20 years and discovering a new and better reader (me) I decided to take a look at Walt Whitman, another poet who, at a different point in my life, had a big effect on me. I don’t have a collection of his poetry any more so I had to “google. The two poems I had in mind came from a section of Leaves of Grass that Whitman titled “Calamus.”

Back in the day, I never asked “what is calamus?” I don’t know why. I guess at that point (late 20s) I was more enchanted than curious. But after reading the two poems I loved most back in the day, I was curious, because the poems no longer have any resonance for me.

Pretty interesting plant with medicinal properties and oblique Bible references, especially in the Song of Solomon.

Whitman’s poems are not very subtle and as I read them over a couple of times I wondered what that young woman thought she saw in them. I remembered one particular moment involving a champagne laden oral reading in my kitchen the night Reagan was inaugurated. No, we weren’t celebrating that; there was a party at my house of people who’d worked to elect an independent candidate, John Anderson, and they were all in the living room watching Bedtime for Bonzo. My friends and I were in the kitchen being deep and complicated.

Now I wonder why I made my friends listen to this, but I did.

I’m not the one to criticize Whitman (but you are doing just that, Martha!) but the two poems that enchanted me so much? One is obviously about male homosexual yearning and the other is about vita brevis est; ars longas or however that is correctly spelled and how Whitman’s words (leaves of grass) would live long after he had died.

Interestingly, back in my 20s, I ignored the simple grammar in Whitman’s poem, “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” and decided that “you” referred to art/poetry when it clearly refers to death.

…Give me your tone therefore O death, that I may accord with it,
Give me yourself, for I see that you belong to me now above all,
and are folded inseparably together, you love and death are,
Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that 
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter 
how long,That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very 
long,
But you will last very long.

Naturally a lot has happened in my life since my late 20s, among those “events” was a kind of awakening in my early 40s resulting from the question, “What’s real, anyway?” (Don’t ask that!!!) For a while I was content seeing what I wanted to see and then, a titanic turning point, and afterwards I wanted to see what was really there.

And so, Calamus.

Calamus is a plant. The root (rhizome) is used to make medicine.

Despite safety concerns, calamus is used for gastrointestinal (GI) problems including ulcers, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), intestinal gas(flatulence), upset stomach and loss of appetite (anorexia). Calamus is also used as a calming medicine (sedative), to induce sweating, and to treat rheumatoid arthritis and stroke.

Some people chew calamus to remove the smell of tobacco, as a stimulant, to increase their sense of well-being, and as a hallucinogen.

Some people apply calamus directly to the skin to treat certain skin diseases.

In foods, calamus is used as a spice.

https://www.rxlist.com/calamus/supplements.htm


I have NO idea if Whitman knew about the medicinal uses of this grass, but he certainly knew what it looked like. I had to laugh when I saw the photo.

Whitman left the world some “leaves” I will also always be grateful for and to which I turn in my mind. One of them is:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

BY WALT WHITMAN

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.

Problems of the Famous Author…

Sometimes I’m writing a serious story (like any of my stories are light hearted?) and an idea that’s completely silly enters my mind and I know if I write anything related to that I won’t be able to stop myself. I’ve returned to working on the story of Michele, Martin’s teacher in Martin of Gfenn. In the story he’s an illegitimate child, raised in a monastery. Through a series of events (that I don’t even know yet) his father — Bro. Benedetto, a Franciscan monk and a painter, with a sketchy past (ha ha) — goes to get him, and Michele becomes his father’s apprentice. Of course their relationship develops (if you’ve read Martin of Gfenn you know Michele revered his teacher) and I was wondering, “Should Bro. Benedetto (known fondly as Brother Benny) ever tell Michele of their true relationship?”

***

And NOW the most beautiful poem about webs I know…

A Noiseless Patient Spider

BY WALT WHITMAN

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.

***

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/27/rdp-tuesday-web/

Walt Whitman’s Birthday

Among the books that are most rewarding to buy in a used book store is Leaves of Grass. I’ve owned three and what makes them so wonderful (besides Whitman’s poetry) are the relics often hidden inside. No one buys that book without loving it. Inside all the old copies I’ve owned have been newspaper clippings, notes, favorite lines written in margins, dedications usually signed with “love.”

Today is Walt Whitman’s birthday.

I remember the day Reagan was inaugurated. I had a party in my apartment in Denver. I was a year or two out of graduate school. I had worked on John Anderson’s campaign. The party was some of my real-life personal friends and a bunch of people from the Anderson campaign. Someone had to bring a TV because I didn’t have one. The plan was to watch Bedtime for Bonzo in which our new President was the adopted father of a chimpanzee. I didn’t have a lot of furniture and my floor was solid oak. There was no where comfortable and I wasn’t really interested in the movie. My friends and I stayed in the kitchen, got plowed and that led, naturally, to my reading Walt Whitman (whether anyone liked it or not).

Back then I had the belief that poetry was more important than politics and writing was the single most important thing for me to do, beyond earning a living or love or anything else.

Whitman had influenced some of that.

There are many amazing poems in Leaves of Grass. Some I’ve taught, particularly “There was a Child Went Forth” which I had my students act out as a way to prove that poetry is not inaccessible. Another that often made it up on my chalkboard was “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” —

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.

This one I drew.

But that night of Reagan’s inauguration I wasn’t reading these poems. I don’t think I’d even met them, yet. I was reading from the book within the book, Calamus. My favorite at the time was “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” It spoke to me so clearly of artistic integrity, sexuality and death. He is speaking to the leaves of grass (and other plants) that come out of his heart and will someday rise from the ground above his body.

Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter
how long,
That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very
long,
But you will last very long.

At this point in the story — so many years later — I remember that young woman who got so drunk on wine and poetry that she banged her head on the ledge below her kitchen sink when she sat down. I remember her ecstatic lecture to the small group (four? five?) of friends who were also not interested in the antics of Ronald Reagan and a monkey. I doubt they were all that interested in Whitman, either, but the young woman all on her own was a pretty good show.

Far more often than I think of that evening, I think of this poem. I think of what it means to “dissipate the entire show of appearance” and how much that matters.

As for the “scented herbage of my breast” — that young woman had no idea what it would be, what that would mean. She wrote anyway, but had no real story except a sad but lovely romance that could never work.

So she wrote it, as practice, you know, for the real stories that came later.

 

image_549503883827469

She was also an artist… These are linoleum cuts

A song from the practice story…

 

A lovely movie starring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman — Beautiful Dreamers