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The Bard of Democracy (and of getting better air in our lungs) May 31, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”

 

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

 

– excerpts from the essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (b. 05/25/1803)

 

“I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”

– Walt Whitman (b. 05/31/1819) as quoted in a February 1902 article by John Townsend Trowbridge, published in The Atlantic Monthly

 

There are times when we have so much churning inside of our minds and our bodies that it can make us physically ill. It churns and churns, until it spills over. Or, another analogy is to think of all of that emotion as water inside of a pot on top of an open flame: it’s “simmering, simmering, simmering…” until it boils over. When we are children, we are taught to be mindful of the hot stove and the pot that sits on top. We watch our elders; placing various ingredients inside, stirring, churning, adjusting the flames – even tasting along the way, sometimes even letting us taste a little. We watch and learn that we can make something delicious, or potent medicine, or poison, or paint and dye. We watch and learn that if we don’t pay close attention we will make a big, unusable, inedible mess. We watch and learn that if we are not careful, we can hurt ourselves or others.

Many of us in the United States of America were raised with the idea that America is the great melting pot – a mixture of so many different cultures and flavors coming together into a single delicacy. The term started gaining traction as a metaphor for the USA after the production of the play The Melting Pot, which premiered in Washington, D. C. in October of 1908. The play had a happy ending. However, years before it was written (way back in the mid-1800’s), writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had noticed that no one was watching the pot, or the open flame.

Emerson encouraged American scholars, clergy, poets, and every day people to take responsibility for the-pot-on-the-flame that is society. He kicked off the Transcendental movement and inspired people like Whitman, who decided he would be “The Poet” that Emerson said was needed to capture the spirit of America. Born today in 1819, Whitman was the father of “free verse.” He wrote about what he observed and what he perceived. So, he wrote about baseball, and slavery, and leaves of grass, and women’s bodies, and women’s rights, and men’s bodies, and their rights, and his own body, and about all of humanity crossing a single point over decades. He wrote about breathing, and about questioning everything.

6

….

“Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,

For you only, and not for him and her?

7

A man’s body at auction,

….

Gentlemen look on this wonder,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,

….

Within there runs blood,

The same old blood! the same red-running blood!

There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,

(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,

In him the start of populous states and rich republics,

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?

(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)

8

A woman’s body at auction,

She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers,

She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.

Have you ever loved the body of a woman?

Have you ever loved the body of a man?

Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?

If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred,”

 

– excerpts (abridged) from “I Sing The Body Electric” by Walt Whitman

 

The first edition of Leaves of Grass (published in 1855) contained twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. It was a collection intended to fit in someone’s pocket. Right off the bat, Whitman had critics – and those critics included luminaries like Willa Cather (who called him “that dirty old man,” “the poet of the dung hill as well as the mountains,” and compared one of his poems to what would happen “If a joyous elephant should break forth into song….” But, among his fans, was Whitman’s inspiration: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s approval inspired Whitman to not only produce a second edition of Leaves of Grass (published in 1856), but to add poems and increase the number of pages to 384. He did not stop there, however. After “33 y’rs of hackiling at it” (according to a letter Whitman wrote to a friend) – or after “thirty-five or forty years” (as announced in the New York Herald) – Whitman released the sixth, seventh, or ninth edition (depending on how you count) shortly before his death. This 1892 edition is referred to as the “deathbed edition” and contained almost 400 poems.

In a mini biography for Biography, Dr. Robert Hudspeth, Research Professor of English at Claremont Graduate University, said, “Whitman was called ‘The Bard of Democracy’ because all of his poems are based on the notion of a universal brotherhood. He thought that the possibility of America was to achieve a brotherhood that no other culture had yet been able to achieve.” This view of what the country could be was a true melting pot – that is to say, a heterogeneous society becoming a homogeneous society by virtue of all the cultures melting together to form something new. Whitman saw the ideal (American) society as one where everyone recognized the value and humanity of everyone else. What he saw around him, however, was that the-pot-on-the-flame that is society was boiling over. Instead of coming together, melding together, everything (and everyone) in the proverbial pot was churning in a way that overflowed; meaning, some things (and some people) were getting pushed out of the coming together process. The country was becoming homogeneous not because it was melding together, but because it was excluding certain aspects that made it heterogeneous.

Whitman tried, he really did, but ultimately, he could not get enough people to pay attention to what was happening around them. People, even back in the 1800’s, were distracted by his sexuality and the sensual nature of the poems. Writers like Willa Cather referred to his work as “ridiculous” and people in power (including the head of the Department of the Interior, for which he worked) called Leaves of Grass offensive, filthy, and/or sinful (especially to Christians). As harsh as some of that sounds, these are some of the least caustic reviews. (Much worse was actually printed in the press.)

And so here we are… Fast forward and the-pot-on-the-flame that is society has officially boiled over. Walt Whitman knew it was coming and he didn’t just leave us a little advice. He left us a whole manual for moving forward. In the preface to Leaves of Grass he wrote “This is what you shall do….”

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

– from the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman believed in celebrating the body, exploring, questioning, and coming together – and we can do all that in yoga. Please join me for a 65-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, May 31st) at 2:30 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is an upgrade that went into effect yesterday (Saturday, May 30th). If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

(NOTE: The YouTube playlist includes recordings of some of the poems, as part of the before/after class mix. These tracks are not included on Spotify.)

 

“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs.”

 

– Walt Whitman writing about the new game, baseball, in the Brooklyn Eagle (07/23/1846)

 

 

### “A KELSON OF THE CREATION IS LOVE” (WW) ###

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