Blades of Grass
“A child said, ‘What’s that grass? and picked it up with his full hands.
How could I answer the child? I know no better than the child what it is.
I think it must be the flag of my being, woven of hopeful green cloth.”
His song swings in a rhythm that rises directly from the earth. A rhythm that is not restricted or slowed down by any rhymes, but which continues to soar in free-flowing waves to a hymn to America and its people.
Today Whitman is hardly ever read. But that has little to do with his language and nothing to do with the widespread dislike of poetry.
It has to do with the fact that he sings about a self that is different from anything we know today.
“I sing the self, the individual human being,
But say the word ‘democratic’, the word ‘en masse’.
This ego is not ours. It is not an unhappy toddler who always wants more, more toys, more money, more leisure or power. And yet will never really own anything.
But it is an ego that sings in its joy of existence, its lust for life and that knows about the relationship of all living beings and the immortality of being.
For his I was an I of love, in close connection to the world around him.
“Wide embracing earth – lush apple blossom earth!
Smile, for your lover is coming.”
And a lover he really was. A lover of the states, to whom he wrote the role for their future.
And a lover of his people, the bricklayer, cobbler or carpenter, united with them in the belief in democracy, in the freedom of the individual and equality before God.
“I hear America singing, the many songs I hear
Those of the workmen, each one singing his own, joyfully and loudly,
The carpenter does his own, while measuring board and beam,
The bricklayer takes his own when he goes to work or comes home from work,
The boatman singing about what belongs to him in his boat, the sailor singing on his steamer,
The cobbler on his stool, the milliner at his stall,
The woodcutter’s song, the farmer’s song, on the way in the morning or during lunch break or at sunset,
The lovely singing of the mother, or the young woman at work, or the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing about what belongs to him or her and no one else,
By day what belongs to the day – at night the company of young boys, good-natured, rough,
Singing at the top of her lungs her melodic powerful roundelay.”
But he spoke of a different America than the one we know today. He spoke of a land of vast savannahs, full of untouched nature and young cities, where the soul could spread its wings wide.
We must not be surprised, because it was the childhood of America, the birth of a new man, a really new way of living together, freer and more independent than anyone had ever seen.
And his dream was the dream of many. Even the poets of Europe longed for this young country, untainted by history and centuries-old traditions, and believed that America was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in its fight for freedom.
Everything he ever thought, everything he ever experienced and saw was put into the book. And everything he wrote became the truth in his life.
But Whitman was not only the singer of a free America, the seer of a possible future, but also the herald of comradeship, manhood and friendship. And of the love of men, the love between men.
“On untraveled paths,
On the rampant edges of swampy ponds,
slipping away from the life that carries itself to market,
All the rules in force, amusements, all the greed for profit, everything that is based on others,
And what my soul has been nourished by for too long,
Clearly recognizing rules not yet in force, clearly recognizing that my soul,
That the soul of the man for whom I speak has its lust for comrades,
Alone with me, away from the noise of the world,
Conversing with aromatic tongues,
No longer shy (because in this remote place I can answer as I would not dare to elsewhere),
Glowing with the life that does not carry itself to market and yet contains all the rest,
Determined not to sing any other songs today than those of male friendship,
To send them out into this life in the flesh,
Model to create athletic love,
On this delicious ninth month afternoon, in my forty-first year,
Do I go there, for all who are or were young men,
To speak out the secret of my days and nights,
To celebrate the need for comrades.”
Whitman sang the song of the free man. It may sound strange to us today, crammed into our lives, in dark rooms and sweaty offices.
But he sang a song of men who walk proudly and upright.
Settlers in Mannahatta, my town, or on the savannahs of the South,
Or soldier in camp, or carrying my satchel and rifle, or gold-digger in California,
Or rough-housed in Dakota forests, my food meat, my drink from the spring,
Or withdrawn, to ponder and reflect in some deep hiding place,
Far from the noise of the crowd, resting, enchanted and happily fading away,
Whitman the herald of himself, of another time and another world.
Is he still heard today? I do not know.
“Today – what a thought! Today’ and the times to come.
Did you think that you yourself will not live forever? Have you ever been afraid of the grave digger beetles?
Has it ever frightened you that the future will happen without you?
Is it nothing today? Is the unlimited past nothing?
If the future is not the future, then today and yesterday are nothing either.”