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Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study of Ecopoetics

Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study of Ecopoetics

by M. Jimmie Killingsworth

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Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,


Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
—Walt Whitman, from “This Compost” How did Whitman use language to figure out his relationship to the earth, and how can we interpret his language to reconstruct the interplay between the poet and his sociopolitical and environmental world? In this first book-length study of Whitman’s poetry from an ecocritical perspective, Jimmie Killingsworth takes ecocriticism one step further into ecopoetics to reconsider both Whitman’s language in light of an ecological understanding of the world and the world through a close study of Whitman’s language. Killingsworth contends that Whitman’s poetry embodies the kinds of conflicted experience and language that continually crop up in the discourse of political ecology and that an ecopoetic perspective can explicate Whitman’s feelings about his aging body, his war-torn nation, and the increasing stress on the American environment both inside and outside the urban world. He begins with a close reading of “This Compost”—Whitman’s greatest contribution to the literature of ecology,” from the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. He then explores personification and nature as object, as resource, and as spirit and examines manifest destiny and the globalizing impulse behind Leaves of Grass, then moves the other way, toward Whitman’s regional, even local appeal—demonstrating that he remained an island poet even as he became America’s first urban poet. After considering Whitman as an urbanizing poet, he shows how, in his final writings, Whitman tried to renew his earlier connection to nature. Walt Whitman and the Earth reveals Whitman as a powerfully creative experimental poet and a representative figure in American culture whose struggles and impulses previewed our lives today.

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Walt Whitman & the Earth A STUDY IN ECOPOETICS
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-903-3

Chapter One Things of the Earth Troubles in the relationships among physical objects, people, and abstractions haunt American ecopoetics from the nineteenth century down to the present time. For his part, Whitman follows Wordsworth in resisting the personification of abstractions - treating ideas as if they were people. And like Marx, he resists the treatment of people as if they were objects - the property of slave owners or cogs in the industrial machine - as well as the treatment of abstractions as reified objects.

But problems arise in Leaves of Grass with the status of natural objects. The poet's inclination to see himself reflected in nature frequently leads him into an Anglo-American poetic tradition in which the status of an object appears to depend upon its metaphysical or psychological value. The spider of Jonathan Edwards, the waterfall of Henry Vaughan, the waterfowl of William Cullen Bryant, the marsh hen of Sidney Lanier stand as signs of God's power, glory, and grace. Their standing as earthly beings is sacrificed on the altar of allegory and metaphor. Even Wordsworth's daffodils, the bees of Emerson and Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes's chambered nautilus, Marianne Moore's paper nautilus, and Theodore Roethke's rose ultimately serve as grist for the metaphysical mill, representing some aspect of the poet's identity, some imposition of ego upon the face of nature. Notwithstanding strictures against the pathetic fallacy in literary theory and against anthropomorphism in science, personification and other tropes of imposition persist not only in twentieth-century poetry but even in scientifically informed nonfiction prose, in such influential works as Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for which the central metaphors of the earth's body and the health of the landscape are keys to an activist rhetoric (see Killingsworth and Palmer, Ecospeak, chapter 2).

Such tropes no doubt reinforce human identity with the earth, but we might do well to recall that the etymology of the word trope suggests "a turning" and that turning away is the characteristic action of hysteria, according to Freud, a neurosis in which something is denied that eventually comes to haunt the hysterical subject. What may be denied here is that in extracting personal meaning from earthly objects or treating them as poetic property upon which to build the "more stately mansions" of metaphysics, nature poetry turns away from the earth. It aligns ideologically with the extractive industries that overexploit precious minerals, water, and soil, only to find the "environmental problems" of toxicity and scarcity cropping up later like the return of the repressed in the psychoanalytic model (see Killingsworth and Palmer, "The Discourse of 'Environmentalist Hysteria'").

To some extent, as a human art poetry cannot avoid participating in this kind of extractive or acquisitive discourse. Perhaps the most we can ask is that ecopoetics seek a heightened consciousness, a reconsideration of verbal practices that involve categorizing, naming, or identifying with natural objects. At several moments in the first two editions of Leaves of Grass (1855 and 1856),Whitman arrives at this point, pausing to consider his relationship to the earth as a poet and a human being. He comes face to face with certain phenomena in nature that cause him to admit his puzzlement and incapacity, even terror. His poetic response anticipates a recent theoretical trend in literary and cultural studies - the consideration of things as a category distinct from physical objects, abstractions, and people.

It is the unspeakableness of things that Whitman most commonly dramatizes during these arresting moments. Things suggest the unspeakable in at least two senses that many of us learned directly from our parents. For the unspeakable in the sense of cognitive incapacity, for example, I had in my own household my stepfather's endless stream of fumblings for the right word - the thingamabob, the whatchamacallit, the doohickey - the thing whose name cannot be recalled in the heat of activity, as in "Hand me that thing on the work bench." For the unspeakable in the sense of unfit to be named for fear of moral or social impropriety, I had my mother's usage. For her, as for the parents of many American children, "thing" was a euphemism for the body's "private parts," as in the hesitant instruction to "tell the doctor about your ... ah ... thing." The "thingamabob" and the "ah ... thing" form an ironic pair in a memory I have of my mother stifling a laugh when a woman pulled in next to us at a gas station, the lid of her car's trunk swinging wide open, and complained loudly to the attendant, "I can't get my thing down."

A third sense of the unspeakable thing is one I gleaned not from home but from excursions into Eastern mysticism and Beat poetry. I mean the ineffable, as in "the thing experienced during deep meditation that is beyond words" - the One, according to Hindu metaphysics, "before whom words recoil" (Shankara, qtd. in Huxley 24). In an introduction to the classic of Chinese mysticism, Lao Tzu's The Way of Life (Tao Te Ching), R. B. Blakney writes that the mystics of Lao Tzu's time came upon a "problem of communication": "They had discovered, they said, a unique Something for which there was no word or name. It did not belong to the world in which language is born" (17). If you know it, says the Zen master, you can't speak it; if you can speak it, you don't know it. Jack Kerouac provides a fine example in On the Road. Recalling the performance of a jazz saxophone player in San Francisco, the ecstatic protagonist Dean Moriarity says, "Now, man, that alto man last night had IT - he held it once he found it; I've never seen a guy who could hold so long." The narrator, Sal Paradise, asks him what he means by this thing, by "IT":

"Ah well" - Dean laughed - "now you're asking me impon-de-rables - ahem! Here's a guy and everybody's there, right? Up to him to put down what's on everybody's mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it - everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling and soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT -" Dean could go no further; he was sweating telling about it. (Kerouac 206)

All three of the linguistic limits or incapacities associated with thingish phenomena - the cognitive "thingamabob," the moral "ah ... thing," and the mystical "It" - intertwine in Whitman's poems. He dramatizes the cognitive incapacity with the frequent use of words like "something" - especially in the early editions of Leaves of Grass in which the poet seems eager to get at states of mind, instinctual relationships, and earthly conditions that have no definite name, as in the line "Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs, / Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven" (LG 1855, 30). For the same purpose, he often resorts to the vague demonstrative "this," as in the never-answered question from the 1855 version of "Song of Myself," "Is this then a touch?.... quivering me to a new identity" (LG 1855, 32). Compare the first line of Holmes's poem "The Chambered Nautilus" - "This is the ship of pearl" (Holmes, in Ellmann 139) - in which "this" merely connects the name in the title to the first image of the poem in what becomes a virtual slide show of metaphors, the way a lecturer uses a pointer. In contrast, Whitman's "this" hangs like a question mark in the air. Like the pronouns "I" and "you," the demonstrative "this" is what the linguists call a shifter, or deictic. It shifts attention or points to a context, which in this case is unspecified and thus leaves the reader searching (see Benveniste; see also Jakobson).

As for the unspeakable in the sense of morally unfit to be mentioned in public, we need only remember that a contemporary reviewer of Leaves of Grass invoked the old legal formula for sodomy as the crime too horrible to be named among Christians. "In our allusion to this book," wrote Rufus Griswold in the New York Criterion of November 10, 1855, "we have found it impossible to convey ... our disgust and detestation ... without employing language that cannot be pleasing to ears polite; but it does seem that some one should ... undertake a most disagreeable, yet stern duty. The records of crime show that many monsters have gone on in impunity, because the exposure of their vileness was attended with too great indelicacy. Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum" (Hindus 33). Whitman himself hesitated to name the emotion that he felt for other men. In the 1860 version of the notorious Calamus poems, the poet wonders "if other men ever have the like, out of the like feelings?" (CRE 596). The word "like" in this context functions as a thing, "a place holder for some future specifying operation" (Brown 4). In Calamus, as in conversations with friends like Horace Traubel, Whitman seemed to be guarding a secret, hinting toward his homosexuality without confessing it directly. But he could also have been incapacitated by his uncertainty over the emotional turmoil he felt about other men or about his own sexual "nature." It was a thing he had trouble naming. "Manly love" and "adhesiveness" and "comradeship" never quite covered it. "I often say to myself about Calamus," he told Traubel, "perhaps it means more or less than what I thought myself - means different: perhaps I don't know what it all means - perhaps never did know"(Traubel 1:76). Whatever we may think about Whitman's disingenuousness, his "foxiness," we need not discount his struggle over the right language and his worries about the "unspeakable."

At the third point of incapacity, Whitman dramatizes what seems to be a version of the mystical ineffable in metaphors mingling things sexual, sentimental, and metaphysical. "I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning," says the poet in the 1855 "Song of Myself," ostensibly addressing his soul: "You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart"(LG 1855, 15). Losing their ordinary functions and anatomical coordinates, the heart and tongue in this passage become uncannily thingish. The images "hover over the threshold between the nameable and unnameable, the figurable and unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable" (Brown 5).

One of Whitman's most powerful dramatizations of thingish incapacity occurs in the poem "This Compost," which dates from the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem stands as perhaps the most remarkable nineteenth-century contribution to the poetry of ecology in America. It gathers up the threads of the rhetorical and poetic tradition known as "the sublime," the expression of awe that inheres in "human beings' encounters with a nonhuman world whose power ultimately exceeds theirs," inspiring a sense of humility and mortality (Hitt 609-610). And it anticipates the conjunction of science, activism, and spirituality that would become known as "deep ecology" in the nuclear age of the late twentieth century, a worldview that aims toward a reintegration of subject and object, human and nonhuman, but begins with an acknowledgment of the intrinsic worth, autonomy, and power of the more-than-human. In my reading of "This Compost," the poem's ecological power depends upon its treatment of earthy thingishness. To capture fully the nature mystic's view of the earth as the "Wholly (and Holy) Other"(Graber 2),the poet must engage the limits of human language and being, understanding the earth not only from the perspective of identity but primarily as a thing unto itself. In thus encountering the "Other" in nature, "This Compost" qualifies as an early instance of both an "environmental poem" as defined by Patrick D. Murphy (11) and a "sustainable poem" as defined by Leonard M. Scigaj; it stands as "the verbal record of an interactive encounter in the world of our sensory experience between the human psyche and nature, where nature retains its autonomy" (Scigaj 80).

The poem begins with a scene in which the poet catches himself in the moment of turning away, confronted with "something" he refuses to name, categorize, or tame with a trope. He starts not with affirmations of identity or kinship, or with abstractions and distance, but with a nearly physical repulsion. Out to refresh himself in fine Romantic form, he is confronted with a thing unspeakably offensive:

SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest, I withdraw from the still woods I loved, I will not go now on the pastures to walk, I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea, I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me. (LG 1891-92, 285)

The implication is that before this "something" intrudes, the poet enjoys a physical intimacy with the earth. He "renews" himself by allowing his naked flesh to touch the land or the sea with a sense of likeness and recognition: "as to other flesh." The phrase "where I thought I was safest" suggests a place like home, a familiarity amounting to a familial relation. Indeed, a manuscript for the poem suggests that Whitman once considered beginning with an invocation of the mother, perhaps Mother Earth: "O Mother, did you think / there could ever be a time / when I might not" - the manuscript breaks off before completing the question (Faint Clews and Indirections 9). The likeness of the mother - one's own "flesh and blood" - hints at an intimacy beyond all others that is destroyed in the hysterical moment of turning away from the thing that was once the source of renewal.

What was motherly is now "otherly." The "something" intervenes to disturb the identity, much as the dirt on a window destroys its transparency. The window becomes something to be reckoned with (to be cleaned or cursed). It emerges from transparency to become a thing. "We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested" (Brown 4). When we have to protect air or buy water in plastic bottles, they become things that have stopped working rather than the transparent media of life.

One thing that stops working for Whitman in "This Compost" is the metaphorical network that mediates his relationship with the earth. The nature lover finds the object of his affection fouled. What was once beautiful and comforting becomes hideous and disturbing; what was familiar, strange. In his revision of the manuscript, he rejects the apostrophe to the mother, refusing kinship with a thing so alien, so toxic. He is left with a crisis of identity, the health of the landscape now suspect, his own confident safety threatened by an obsessive concern with infection in a kind of antipastoral gothic fantasy:

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken? How can you be alive you growths of spring? How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain? Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you? Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead? Where have you disposed of their carcasses? Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations? Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat? I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd, I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath, I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat. (LG 1891-92, 285-286)

Another thing that has stopped working in this first movement of the poem, which encompasses the entirety of Section 1, is the Romantic or transcendental attitude according to which the poet understands himself as the confident son of the earth. He worries that "perhaps I am deceived" and resorts to the experiment with the plough. If he is "sure" of anything, it is that he will produce a horrifying result.


Excerpted from Walt Whitman & the Earth by M. JIMMIE KILLINGSWORTH Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jimmie Killingsworth is a professor of English at Texas A&M University, author of The Growth of “Leaves of Grass”: The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies and Whitman’s Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text, and coauthor of Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America.

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