Of Songs & Stories: The Poetry of Walt Whitman

Today is World Poetry Day. What’s more, I’m at home and relatively free to indulge in some poetry thanks to the social distancing we need to practice in these tough times of the COVID-19 scare. Being a poet myself and having read a lot of poetry, I believe that poetry, unlike any other form of writing, can help you discover yourself, can help clear your brain when you’re uncertain or confused and can help bring closure and heal when your heart hurts. Of course, poetry can also bring a smile to your face and perhaps make you laugh too if you’re in the mood for it.

Over the next few days (starting today), I will be sharing the work (all from the public domain) of some of the poets I adore and that I feel should reach more people. I shall also throw in a bit about how I connect with a particular piece or with the poet and hopefully, you too will find your own personal connect.

I’m going to start with a few verses from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’.

Image result for leaves of grass walt whitman
pic source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/4404530246

This collection is close to my heart for many reasons, the most important being that it made me realize there is poetry beyond rhyme. I have been writing poetry since I was in school; but all the poetry I was exposed to back then were strictly rhyming and the few people I discussed my poems with encouraged only rhyming poems. I didn’t and still don’t have a problem with rhyme, but it does get frustrating when you can’t write what you want to because it doesn’t rhyme! Perhaps I should blame my vocabulary for it? It was a restriction that almost made me give up writing poems.

Then, I discovered Whitman. And I discovered that more important than rhyme is rhythm… a discovery that changed the way I consumed and wrote poetry. I also realized that poems can get over in just two to three lines or run into several pages, that poems can ask questions and not answer them, that a poem can be a story and it can be a song, that you don’t need to follow rules to write poems… you need to follow your heart.

With that, let me leave you with a few verses from the book that I often go back to for inspiration:

Image result for leaves of grass walt whitman
pic source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iip-photo-archive/27102624032

TO YOU.

STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak

to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns

before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,

divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


O YOU WHOM I OFTEN AND SILENTLY COME.

O YOU whom I often and silently come where you are

that I may be with you,
As I walk by your side or sit near, or remain in the same
room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake
is playing within me.

A SONG FOR OCCUPATIONS. (excerpts from Part 3 & 4)
Have you reckon’d the landscape took substance and
form that it might be painted in a picture?
Or men and women that they might be written of,
and songs sung?
Or the attraction of gravity, and the great laws and
harmonious combinations, and the fluids of the
air, as subjects for the savans?
Or the brown land and the blue sea for maps and
charts?
Or the stars to be put in constellations and named
fancy names?
Or that the growth of seeds is for agricultural tables,
or agriculture itself?

Old institutions—these arts, libraries, legends,

collections, and the practice handed along in
manufactures—will we rate them so high?
Will we rate our cash and business high ?—I have no
objection;
I rate them as high as the highest—then a child born
of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.
We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not
say they are not divine;
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow
out of you still;
It is not they who give the life—it is you who give
the life;
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees
from the earth, than they are shed out of you.
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it,
(Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of
the arches and cornices?)
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the
instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the
beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing
his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus, nor that
of the women’s chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.

TO THE SAYERS OF WORDS. (excerpts from Part 4 & 6)

The song is to the singer, and comes back most to
him;
The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most
to him;
The murder is to the murderer, and comes back most
to him;
The theft is to the thief, and comes back most to him;
The love is to the lover, and comes back most to him;
The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him
—it cannot fail;
The oration is to the orator, the acting is to the actor
and actress, not to the audience;
And no man understands any greatness or goodness
but his own, or the indication of his own.
This is a poem for the sayers of words—these are
hints of meanings,
These are they that echo the tones of Souls, and
the phrases of Souls;
If they did not echo the phrases of Souls, what were
they then ?
If they had not reference to you in especial, what were
they then?
31I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the
faith that tells the best!
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the
best untold.

I hope you enjoyed these verses as much as I have, perhaps even more. Do come back tomorrow for more!

Psst:  The poet I’ll discuss tomorrow is someone whose work made me realize how  how, to quote one of my favorite designers, Mies Van der Rohe, Less is More …and perhaps even profound in poetry.

 

 

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