Walt Whitman Didn’t Touch: On the Passion of the Visual, Poetic Mysticism, America, and You

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I love poetry that – amidst its declamations – speaks directly and passionately to the reader.    Paul Celan uses the word “you” in many of his poems.  Although the word “you” may refer to his soul, his mother, a lover, God, and/or you the reader, the passion of dialogue that he sets forth remains.  In the poem, “ON EITHER HAND” Celan speaks to you, speaks of us, and points out the space that both joins and separates us from each other:

How

the world opens for us, right through the midst

of ourselves!

 

You are

where your eye is, you are

above, are

below, I

find my way out.

 

O this wandering empty

hospitable midst.  Apart,

I fall to you, you

fall to me, fallen away

from each other, we see

through

The “hospitable midst” is a place that relates us.  But notice that we don’t touch.  We see (“you are/ where your eye is, you are”).  The relations are in space and are visual.

Kenneth Patchen, in a book he wrote in 1941 entitled The Journal of Albion Moonlight (which some have argued, was a major precursor to the Beat movement), claims that what’s wrong with America (at that time) is that America doesn’t know what it means to touch the other rather than see the other.  He blames the poet Walt Whitman for this (what he calls) “sin.”

I never learned to cry properly as a child. I want to cry now. we are all so apart from each. We never touch. I was never taught to touch another human being. No college in this big land has such a course: to touch, to place your hands on someone….Walt Whitman didn’t want to touch people; we wanted to paw over them….He did not know this because he always wrote as though he stood in a public room….He was a homeless-sexual. Americans run to his sin. (24)

Is this claim valid?  Was Walt Whitman confined to the visual, a “homeless sexual” whose poetry advocated seeing but not touching?

The first words of “Song of Myself” are passionately directed toward “you.”

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman’s poetic mysticism is directed toward you.  He wants you, the reader, to trust him as one would trust a lover.  He wants you to believe that he knows what you are feeling and that he feels the same thing.  He speaks to you, the everyman; not you, the elitist:

Have you practiced so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

 

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…..there are millions of sons left,

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…nor look through the eyes of the

            dead…nor feed on the specters in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

Whitman’s passionate promises to you are astonishing.   It seems that, contrary to Patchen, Whitman wants to leave the text behind and speak to you, face to face.  However, much of Leaves of Grass is a long epic listing of differing things and people he sees.  But one could argue that he wants to be touched by what he sees.  However, strangely enough, in “Song of Myself,” he says he wants to be touched by something one cannot see; namely, the “air”:

The atmosphere is not a perfume…it has no taste of the distillation…it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever…I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the would and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Yet, he spends the majority of the poem not talking about the “atmosphere” (or as Celan might say, the “midst”) so much as people and things he sees.   It’s as if he wants to be touched by what he sees, but he can’t say it.

At the outset of the poem, “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman speaks to “you” in terms of a visual mysticism but he registers his passion with a bit of alienation by calling what he sees “curious”:

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,

How curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious than you suppose,

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence

Are more to me, and more to my meditations, than you might suppose.

His mysticism here is populist but abstract.  He is “with” you.  But in a way that is less passionate than “Song of Myself.”  He notes how, like you, I have also “looked” and felt as “you” do:

It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not,

I am with you, you men and women of a generation,

Or ever so many generations hence,

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,

Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships

And the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

Perhaps Whitman wanted to touch and be touched by what he saw.  But he couldn’t.  And he felt alone.  Patchen feels alone as well (as he writes in the comfort of the lonely woods of Big Sur, California).  What I find so interesting is that Patchen believed that by openly declaring that one wants to touch the other (in this or that poem, fiction, etc) one is forging a new kind of America, one that is more tactile and less visual.  But the fact of the matter is that all mysticism is based on a longing to not just see but to also be touched by the other.  Celan, like many mystics, was interested in “nearness.”   The poetic visualization that we see in Celan emphasizes the relational aspect of my relation to “you.”  He realizes – perhaps like Whitman in “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” – that one is alone in a crowd.  One cannot become “one” with the other; one can only be in distance or proximity in relation to the other.  There is a distance that can only temporarily be bridged through touch.

What’s the takeaway? Both Whitman and Celan evoke some interesting questions that need to be asked since, after all, all words are for you to read.  The best and most relevant poetry is about us: me and you. It is about the passion of relationality and trying to figure out where I am in relation to…you…and vice versa.

Shouldn’t America be a nation whose poetry and whose poets look to bring me close to you in a visual and tactile sense? Or have we given up on the mystical possibilities of poetic relation in favor of the sitcom or Reality TV show where all relation is staged from one controversy or screw up to another?  Has the passion of relation been turned into the love of sarcasm and the audacity of insult?  Isn’t the America Walt Whitman envisioned founded on the passion for the other and the desire to find what we hold in common?  Is that our America?  What is our, to play on Celan, our “midst”?

Perhaps Walt Whitman – in his longing to bridge the gap – was looking for an American form of midst-i-cism (and not a mysticism, in the traditional sense).  Perhaps America is about almost coming close in a visual and a tactile sense.  Perhaps that’s what lies between Patchen and Whitman.

 

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