“You get what you pay for,” they say. And I paid the price when I decided to tackle Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for my American Lit project. And there were a couple things I took away that I am still trying to wrap my mind around.
- Have you ever READ Whitman?
- How long can one poem be?
- How long can one song within one poem be?
- How do you write about a poem that long when the subject of the work is essentially personalism or monism, and the author does his best to show us that by example after example, all while comPLETEly avoiding the direct approach?
- Why the hell did I choose such an ominous task??
Well, I will tell you: I chose this because I was really busy, and I thought picking a late-in-the-term due date would help me out. HOWEVER, I forgot about the holidays. So yeah, I deserve the brain pain for being ridiculously adolescent. I’m telling you all this in the spirit of Whitman’s monistic epic. After all, if everything is everything, then this aside is totally relevant, right?
Okay, so that is not the only reason I went with Whitman. I’ve played with Leaves of Grass before, after all. I find Whitman to be a refreshing breeze blowing through all of the congestion of transcendentalism that came before him. Prior to Whitman it was all God is in everything, God and Nature, God of Nature. But Whitman was saying I am in everything, Nature and I, Nature of Me.
I am a sucker for a good intro, and this one holds no exception. “…And what I assume you shall assume…” made me think of the definitions of the word assume. I reckon you assumed he just meant presume? I thought about assume as in inherit, become, gather, accumulate… And I thought about the things we can assume: possession, a form, identity, control. These are all very personal things. They are things we do on a personal level. But interestingly, these personal things are discussed as a group endeavor, because Whitman reminds us that all he assumes/becomes/gathers, so do we all. This idea of “me/not me” was crucial to his perspective on Personalism.
Whitman was, for all accounts and purposes, the first to introduce American Personalism. He took God out of the equation and allowed his readers to revel in the wonder of the world (not just the Earth) around them. He made us zoom out farther and farther until we viewed everything from such a distance that it was easy to see that we were part of a bigger system than one created by a church.
That is the inspiration for my latest text drawing. I have input the entire Song of Myself – every word – into this drawing. Every letter of it is in the alphabet. Alphabet letters are used to code. Someone coded the typedrawing app I used. Then I used all of the above to create the universe. Kabbalists would say I am reinventing the wheel, but (sometimes) I’m just an artist playing around with plain old letters, sans Aleph. I made a play on words — (omg. I just said that. I literally PLAYED with WORDS.) — using the fact that in 1868 Whitman wrote an essay on Personalism for the Galaxy, a literary periodical of the day. So I made a galaxy out of Whitman’s words to illustrate his existential poem. You can look really closely and see words and letters, just like you could look really closely at a galaxy and see people. But hey, what’s at the center of that galaxy’s spiral? That would be a tree of life, an infinity symbol, and an i. Yeah, it’s a little i on purpose – look how ridiculously small one of us is in comparison to everything else!
Here is the result:
“The American writer who first formally used the term “Personalism”
was Walt Whitman. On Thursday evening, April 30, 1868, he
wrote to his mother that “I received today another letter from old Mr.
Alcott-I sent him the Galaxy with Personalism-and he compliments
me highly and speaks of Mr. Emerson too and his friendliness to me.”