Friday, September 5, 2014

Five Poems, Five Poets, Five days | Walt Whitman

'I sing the body electric;

That says everything doesn't it. I don't think an opening line gets better than that for me and it's one of my favourites. It is the opening line of the eponymous poem 'I sing the body electric'.  It isn't the most famous of Walt Whitman poems- many critics found it obvious and repetitive. That honour would go to 'O Captain! My Captain!', which has garnered interest of late because of the untimely and sad demise of Robin William's, that funny funny man, who broke our collective hearts a couple of weeks ago.

'I sing the body electric' is from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that was first published in 1855. It grew from a small collection of 12 poems to almost 400 by the time it got to the 'death bed edition'. My own edition (see picture) is a lovely 1968 edition illustrated by Mary Jane Gorton, a replication of an edition in between, I don't know which. It begins with Leaves of Grass, an poem that is a prologue of sort to the next one, I sing the body electric, which is essentially a magnificent ode or rather a love letter, an erotic love letter, to the human body.

The poem is made up of 13 stanzas of varying lengths and the stanzas are made up of structured prose if you will. The poem does have a rhythm of sorts and has to be read aloud. Imagine a chant or a drum rhythm that begins slowly, Dum Dum Dum and then movies into steady beat that finally crescendoes into an orchestra of trumpets and flares.

The first section makes the primal connection between body and soul, and then catalogues its various parts -

The expression of the face balks account;
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists;
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him;
The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel;
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more;
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
He then talks about the democratisation of the body regardless of who we are in society. He talks about the swimmer in the swimming batch, the rower, the horseman, labourers, wrestlers, all in the rhythm of free flowing prose structured into verse. He then talks about the virility of man, the lusciousness of body that is overtly erotic. It's no surprise that this was an extremely controversial piece of work at the time.

You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other.
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.

How about the woman? Well we were kept in our place and it reflects in the poem.  Our bodies are not considered as fierce and we are given more gentle treatment, as would have been the zeitgeist of the time. We are called a 'divine nimbus' which irritated me to no end. What on earth does nimbus mean you ask? I looked it up. It means luminous cloud or even worse, saint. But then of course we are also about desire -

Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice;
Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn;
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
This is the nucleus—after the child is born of woman, the man is born of woman;
This is the bath of birth—this is the merge of small and large, and the outlet again.
 There is no talk about contractions or how my pelvis handles the assault that is the 'birthing' process probably because he never saw what went on at the time. He only saw the perfection. While the male is 'action and power', the woman is 'in her place, and moves with perfect balance;'

That chaffed at my insides but let's move on. We then come to the slave auction where he says he will 'help' the auctioneer while simultaneously deriding the process which he believes is a worship of the physical even as there is so much more to the body. There is the 'all baffling brain' :

In this head the all-baffling brain;
In it and below it, the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white—they are so cunning in tendon and nerve;
They shall be stript, that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant back-bone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
My favourite part, and the reason I chose this poem, is the final stanza. Where he, if I may say, 'rips into it'. If he was a rapper, this would be his crescendo. Tu Pac would have loved this part where he pummels through every organ, every crevice, our mouth, our nose, the teats, the nipples,  the weeping the hips, the wrist. He ticks it all off until he gets to the knees and then says -

The thin red jellies within you, or within me—the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul!

The human body is divine and this poem always makes me feel wonderful be alive, to appreciate what I am and to never take my health for granted. So now I am off to work out. The poem can be read in it's entirety here.

For more information on Walt Whitman- go here 

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