Poets to Come or Stuck Inside of Vegas with the Nobel Blues Again

Bob Dylan getting this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been a hot topic on the internet and this week I’ve seen more than the usual number of Whitman comparisons reeling in the air.

A critic for the NY Times opined that “Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman . . .” From the Desert Trip stage, Mick Jagger said, “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set.  We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before.  Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.”  One guy even had the audacity to write “Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.”

whitman-dylan2c Bob has put his changeling persona to good use, but the reason he has been given the prize is, according to the Nobel committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Just as Whitman did with the American poetry tradition in the 19th century.

Comparisons are odious is an old expression dating from the 15th century, and it’s true that usually it is unhelpful and unfair to compare two different things or persons.  Nonetheless there are some interesting similarities between Mr. W and Mr. D.

Iconoclasts, controversial.  Their writings celebrate freedom and individuality.  There is some mysticism in common and shared themes of war, death and democracy.  And the stand on public nudity: “Nakedness in Nature!  There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent,” Whitman proclaimed (A Sun-bathed Nakedness), while Dylan has murmured, “I run naked when I can” (11 Outlined Epitaphs).

One difference between them, is that unlike Bob, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman did not receive any awards in his lifetime.  When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, it was labeled “obscene” and literally banned in Boston.  Whitman was not a rich man either, for he died in what we call today relative poverty.

Dogging the announcement of Bob’s prize has been the question of whether or not he deserves it, do his lyrics qualify as literature.  I think that can be answered with another question: If the Nobel Prize had existed during Whitman’s time, would Whitman be deserving of it?

By the way, Bob has not commented publicly about winning the prize (evidently, he has not even returned the Nobel committee’s calls).  He’s currently on the road.  The same night as the announcement, he and his band performed in Las Vegas where he played guitar for the first time in four years (on Simple Twist of Fate), and of course, he played at Desert Trip on Friday.

I know Bob admires Walt Whitman and thinks of him as an influence, and I can’t help but wonder what Whitman would think of Dylan’s writing.  Would he consider it poetry, literature?  I think he would.  But that’s just my opinion.

In the poem below, Whitman speaks to the future, and he speaks of his identity and role as an artist, and who knows, perhaps in an moment of mystical prescience, he is also describing a poet to come, a poet who has written surreal, complex, and sometimes beautiful and tender songs from Desolation Row, and has explained them away saying, “It’s all math . . . There’s a definite number of Colt .45s that make up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to.”

Poets to Come

POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!    
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;    
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,    
Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.    
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,             
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.    
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,    
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,    
Expecting the main things from you.

– Walt Whitman


194th Anniversary of Whitman

In 1819, 194 years ago today, a human being was born in West Hills, New York to somewhat poor Quaker parents, the second of nine children. He became one of America’s greatest poets. His name, Walt Whitman.

whitman-1869Much has been written about the influence of Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, in Whitman’s writings. I think there is little question that he was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, I’m not convinced that influence was as significant as some folks maintain. I’ve seen him called a “Buddhist sage,” or “American Buddha.” I’ve even seen descriptions of Whitman’s “meditation practice.” However, I think through his appreciation of living in harmony with the natural rhythm and flow of life, he had more in common with the wandering Taoist sages of China, which he probably knew little about, and I suspect that his mind was too undisciplined to engage in what we would consider meditation practice.

In Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shoei Ando writes, “[The] tendency toward inward reflection and self-conquest did not belong to Whitman, who was indolent, dreamy, fond of calm aesthetic contemplation, and destitute of practical intention for self-purification through discipline.”

Walt Whitman was a natural-born, free-wheeling, mystic poet, who soaked up many influences and wrung them out in his own singular way. His spirituality was born out of an artistic bent, not a religious one. Nonetheless, we can certainly appreciate his nearness to Buddhist thought.

For instance, Ando notes that “Whitman, believing that ‘if anything is sacred the human body is sacred,’ never subordinated the body to the spirit, but strongly insisted upon the equality of both.” In this way, Whitman differed from many of the transcendentalists with whom he is often associated, men like Emerson and Thoreau who were influential in preparing the collective consciousness of America for Eastern thought, but still clung to a rather Christian view of the body as “nothing but a part of those impurities which cloud and obscure the divinity within man.”

Whitman’s view could be compared to the Japanese Buddhist concept of shiki shin funi or “body and spirit are two but not two.” Shin is the Japanese translation of the Chinese character, xin, meaning “heart, mind, spirit, essence.”

Look at these verses from Whitman and then the words of Zen master Dogen:

All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and
pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the
moment of death.

“Starting from Paumanok”

Our Body comes from our learning the Way, and what has come from our learning the Way is our body along with our Body. The whole universe in all ten quarters is synonymous with our one real physical body, and the coming and going of birth and death is also synonymous with our real physical body.”

“On Learning the Way Through Body and Mind” (Shinjin Gakudo) 

Both, to me, are asking us to transcend our coarse conceptions about body and mind, and birth and death, to cast off the limitations of our thoughts. And both equate the body, not with impurity, but with spiritual grace and a certain sublime beauty for it, as with the mind, is a microcosm of the vast, unfathomable universe.

Whitman also recognized the oneness of self and nature (esho funi, “life and environment are two but not two”). In “I Sing The Body Electric”, he wrote,

As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness,
sanity, beauty . . .

Sadakichi Hartmann, the German-Japanese critic and playwright who introduced haiku to America, had a number of encounters with Whitman that he recorded in Conversations with Walt Whitman, published in 1895. On one occasion, Hartmann asked him “Do you believe that mankind can be improved by books?”

Whitman replied, “I can hardly say that I had the idea to better mankind. I grew up like a tree — the poems are the fruit. Good literature ought to be the Roman cement; the older it grows — the better it serves its purpose.”

Over a century has passed since Whitman’s last poem was published posthumously in July 1892. His thoughts, his works, his life itself, is like the Roman cement, older, better, and quite unintentionally, if we are to take his humility at face value, still serving a great purpose.

Now, here is something I didn’t know existed. The University of Iowa describes this as the rediscovery of the “tape-recording of what may be an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines of his late poem ‘America’.” The background story of this recording is rather interesting. You can read about it here, in an article by Ed Folsom for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Click on the arrow below to listen.


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love . . .


“The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious . . .”

All I have to say is that this photo really affected me when I first saw it, and still does. It conveys much about compassion, community, America, and the human spirit. Taken by Pablo Martinez Monsivais (AP) last Wednesday, it shows President Barack Obama embracing Donna Vanzant during a tour of a New Jersey neighborhood affected by Hurricane Sandy. The text is taken from two poems by Walt Whitman, “Tears” and “On the Beach at Night.”

Tears! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head;
O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?
O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind–O belching and desperate!

Weep not, weep not,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition –
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.



Belated Farewell to an American Poet

This is a bit late, but as they say, better late than never . . .

Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, died this September 14 at the age of 89. According to his daughter, he had Alzheimer’s disease.

Simpson published 20 volumes of poetry, one novel (Riverside Drive), and numerous non-fiction books. For more than half a century, he was a respected figure in American Poetry. Whether writing in traditional verse or free verse, his work is characterized by the simple, spare style in which he fashioned his observations on war (he was a combat infantryman in WWII), the American Dream, and the complexities of modern life. “I write about feelings people share, in language that can be understood,” he wrote in The Character of the Poet (Poets on Poetry), published in 1986.

Russian author Anton Chekhov was a major influence. When Simpson’s name appeared on the International Shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004, the judges in their citation wrote, “If Chekhov were reincarnated as a poet into the world where we live, this is surely what he would sound like.” Walt Whitman was an important influence on Simpson as well. Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” inspired the title of the collection At the End of the Open Road, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1964. In a later poem, “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” Simpson laments how the earlier poet’s American dream had been detoured:

Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

Buddhism was another influence. I don’t believe Simpson was a Buddhist per se, but he studied Zen Buddhism, and Zen concepts and imagery seeped into his poetry. His 1976 volume, Searching for the Ox, takes its title from the famous Zen Ox Herding pictures. Once in an interview [1. Hank Lazer, Ed., On Louis Simpson:Depths Beyond Happiness, (University of Michigan Press, 1988)], Simpson talked a bit about Buddhism, and his remarks help explain why Buddhism appealed to him, for as a poet, his primary subject was the everyday things of this saha, this mundane, world:

Buddhism teaches that your physical existence and your mental existence are one thing; in the West, we tend automatically to split them apart, as in the Christian idea of the body and the soul. I prefer the medieval idea – they had a term for the body which recognized it as a form for the soul, which I take to mean that the body is the outward garment of the soul. Whitman says that, too, that there is no split between the body and the soul. And this is what the Buddhists say also. This way of thinking leads to a poetry that is very physical in its orientation, a poetry that concentrates on ordinary life.”

Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1923. His mother was Russian and his father, a lawyer with Scottish ancestry. He came to the United States when he was seventeen. He was an American poet who wrote of contemporary American life, relying on strong, stark imagery to convey his themes:

After Midnight

The dark streets are deserted,
With only a drugstore glowing
Softly, like a sleeping body;

With one white, naked bulb
In the back, that shines
On suicides and abortions.

Who lives in these dark houses?
I am suddenly aware
I might live here myself.

The garage man returns
And puts the change in my hand,
Counting the singles carefully.

Louis Simpson, “After Midnight” from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. Copyright © 2003 by Louis Simpson.



He Heard America Singing

Walt Whitman is often identified with Transcendentalism, a literary, political, and philosophical movement of the 1900’s that included such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Margaret Fuller among its number. However, Whitman was actually more of a humanist or perhaps a populist.  The range of his vision was wide and it included everything, and one gets a sense that he wanted to celebrate everything, that he wanted to put his arms around and embrace the entire universe. Santayana once called Whitman’s vision of America, “the charm of uniformity in multiplicity.”

I have a hunch that Whitman didn’t have much use for labels. He was just transcendental by nature. It was as basic to him as breathing.

In Walt Whitman A Life, Justin Kaplan reports that Whitman once shared his view of religion with Sara Tyndale, an abolitionist and Fourierist from Philadelphia. He related to her a conversation he had with a certain pastor who expressed his hope that Whitman would stick with his Dutch Reformed faith:

I not only assured him of my retaining faith in that sect, but that I had perfect faith in all sects, and was not inclined to reject one single one – but believed each to be as far advanced as it could be, considering what had preceded it.”

Whitman’s true religion was his poetry – he called Leaves of Grass the “new American Bible” – and his object of worship was our country, America, in its most idealized aspect, as a nation of people living together in equality and forever working for greater freedom, even while he was not blind to the harsh realities of injustice and intolerance. I don’t know what Whitman thought of the Statue of Liberty, he died not many years after it was completed, but I imagine he might have looked upon Lady Liberty as the personification of perfection, not unlike Prajna-paramita, the mother of all buddhas.

In Whitman’s  I Hear America Singing,  the songs being sung are those of the working man, perhaps the noblest of all Americans. As we celebrate the founding of our nation this July 4th weekend, you might enjoy reading this poem once again, or for the first time . . .

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.