This past summer we spent some time in Maine, to “leane and loafe” at our ease, “observing a spear of summer grass,” as Walt Whitman would have it.
Like Thoreau, Whitman is a troubling philosopher with his sense of self as Everyman and yet he so un-every, of elevating himself to be the measure so unconsciously perhaps but yet so blind. But Whitman like Thoreau is also a seductive chronicler and observer of nature and life around us — and with Whitman, loafing at the edge of the water is the idea:
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become
undisguised and naked
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of
the shore and the dark-colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn
So we tried to leane and loaf and I spent much of my time wading around, splashing, kneeling and splattering among rocks in water sweet and salty, aspiring to reach in fourteen days the clarity of vision afforded by disentangling oneself from the humdrum demands. I need more practice.
Should you feel distracted of an evening, or gloomy and somber at the contemplation of the march of days ahead and the state of the word, I can think of no better medicine than reading the “Poem of Walt Whitman, and American,” the first in Leaves of Grass (1856; later, he re-named the poem “Song of Myself”). Read out loud the words of a man who looked the fairly dismal condition of his city and country straight in the face and did not despair, but instead sounded his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of The world.”[sic]
As unlikely a poet as Charles Reznikoff (read about him sometime) created lines that express what we aspire to when we try to let it all go
I would be the rock
about which the water is
flowing; and I would be the water flowing
about the rock.
Worthy of the great master bard at his most mystical. Unfortunately (perhaps most of all for himself) Reznikoff could not quite get there, “and am both and nether– being flesh.” He, too, had walked New York City from “from the Battery to the Bronx” and chronicled what is America from its legal documents and court cases, and it did not make him shout any barbaric yawps over the rooftops in admiration for the democratic spirit or the generosity of mankind. (Testimony (United States: 1885-1915) is newly in print at Black Sparrow Press.)
I’m afraid I am with Reznikoff — and like so may of us middle class overeducated types enjoy the fiction embracing Walt Whitman’s Kosmos while on vacation and in daydreams.
As always, click on one of the thumbnails to see the album