When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – Milton, Blake, Whitman (Savitri complementary) Reading Group [2019.10.09]

Originally published at: https://www.metapsychosis.com/events/savitri-complementary-reading-group-2019-10-09/


Date/Time: 9 Oct 2019 @ 8:00 am - 10:00 am America/Denver

Video Conference Link: https://www.cosmos.coop/zoom/savitri

This Week: Selections from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

We are reading diverse texts that complement Aurobindo’s Savitri, with a particular focus on Paradise Lost by John Milton; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and other writings from William Blake; and poems by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass—braiding these readings with the Savitri reading.

Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol is an epic poem in blank verse by Sri Aurobindo, based upon the theology from the Mahabharata. Its central theme revolves around the transcendence of man as the consummation of terrestrial evolution, and the emergence of an immortal supramental gnostic race upon earth. Unfinished at Sri Aurobindo’s death, Savitri approaches 24,000 lines.

:arrow_down: Topic merged from Savitri Complementary Reading Group [8/28] - Walt Whitman and « Leaves of Grass »

Hello Fellow Loafers,

(“I loafe and invite my soul, / observing a spear of summer grass.”)

Whitman is coming up next Wednesday, is this right? I missed the last discussion so I don’t know if we talked about what we are talking about on Wednesday. Someone please fill me in! I don’t know about everyone else, but I am jonesing for some “Lilacs,” and maybe even some of “Song of Myself.” I realized a few days ago that my favorite line so far from Whitman comes from “Lilacs,” and is the perennially quotable:

“the gentle soft-born measureless light”


Hi Andrew, We finished reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. For Blake next time, we propose to begin the Songs of Innocence and Experience. For the Whitman, since you are leading, you get to choose. Just let us know ahead of time so we can prep…


I love Lilacs. Compares with Shelley’s Adonais and Milton’s Lycidas. One of the greatest elegies.

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Great! Okay, what do people think about reading “Lilacs” and the famous preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass? It would be an interesting juxtaposition - “Lilacs” was written ten years after the 1855 edition, so we could try to get at things like “poetic development,” even if in a cursory way. It would also be fun to look at examples of both Whitman’s verse and prose, since, as we discussed earlier, some (okay, Eliot) have said that Whitman essentially wrote prose-in-verse.

Here is a link to “Lilacs”:

And here is a link to the entire 1855 Leaves of Grass, the first edition, including the preface:

Lastly, there has been some talk of Whitman in the news lately, which is worth sharing and talking about. Here are two articles to look at - they are about Whitman in the context of what is being called “cancel culture.” I’d love to hear what other people think about all this. Here are two links:

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Sorry - the link to the preface doesn’t seem to be working - maybe it’s weird if you share it? Anyways, if you google “preface to 1855 leaves of grass pdf,” it should come up, from Western Illinois University

Thanks for getting these links together, Andrew. I found that 1855 PDF and uploaded it, replacing the link above.

Interesting articles. I assume we’ll all be canceled in the end. I will love reading “Lilacs…” again.

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I felt inspired to write a poem in Whitman’s vein/voice/syntax this morning, after stopping midway through “Lilacs” and feeling completely overwhelmed. Here it is (it’s a first draft so cut me some slack)…

And the Voice of My Spirit Tallied the Song of the Bird.docx (12.8 KB)

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Regarding shadow histories…

I referred during our talk to a poem by contemporary poet Layli Long Solider, though my memory of the details was muddy. The poem tells an alt-history of a mass execution of native Americans, which just so happened the same week as the Emancipation Proclamation. History really is messy. The events I very imperfectly recalled were named the Sioux Uprising and hanging of the Dakota 38.

A poem about history, harm, and language—note the symbolic role that “grass” plays in this poem. To be clear: I don’t think this poem is in any direct way about Whitman…but I would argue that it is consciously, indirectly (ironically, showing without saying) a response to Whitman—and a strong one at that, all the more so for its being understated.

I’d argue that a context-sensitive reader must assume the author has “leaves of grass” allusively in mind, which is essential to the poetic effect and meta-meaning of the poem. I am saying that part of reading closely involves reading historically—in precisely some of the ways brought into question here.

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Fascinating poem, Marco @madrush. Thank you for sharing this. It reminds me (again) of the situation of the aboriginal peoples in Australia. I suppose because what is being described is genocide. The rewriting of history by the vainquers (is that the right term? I guess that is French, actually) , by the conquerors, always leaves out the myriad injustices and normalizes a post-conquest world, leaving the history of the vanquished out altogether. I often think about the names of places when I travel. I try to look into the history and find out what is known about the original (native) words for things. I think it would be interesting, useful, and perhaps even right, to rename things the way they were once named, to restore the hidden history to its place… but nobody is listening to such ideas. It is important to restore history in this way, as this poem aims to do. And as whites, how can we invest ourselves into this history remaking? Can that even be done, and how? These are questions that matter, although not as much perhaps as making possible the remaking of history by the vanquished themselves and their descendants. Tricky waters…


Looking forward to looking at the poem. Fwiw, there is a whole book about Whitman’s ambivalent relationship to Native Americans, by Ed Folsom:


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Thanks for stating that, Geoffrey. I feel it’s very easy to take for granted our vantage point as historical winners. Even when descrying injustices, we may do so from a set of assumptions peculiar to our state.

There’s a baby and bathwater problem. We want the transcendent, universal, intimate Whitman, not the racist one who, in grand poetic gestures of manifest destiny, provides spiritual cover for genocide. I am wary of Whitman’s nationalism. There is a powerful, inspiring, and sexy (like the Beat image of the open road) aspect of this “greatest poem” as Whitman calls the United States—but also a harmful, dark side of land despoiled, lives ruined, and people erased.

While I appreciate its better angels and admire its demonic force, I do not romanticize the United States of America.

Is harm intentional on Whitman’s part? Is it in the poetry? I do not believe so. But it is in the history, language, and culture the poetry came out of. There is no way around that. And we are in it, and coming out of it, too.

That’s why I find reading or hearing a piece like “38” next to Whitman so haunting and provocative. Without even being remotely about Whitman, the poem is about Whitman—because Whitman’s “leaves of grass” are practically synonymous with American poetry.

A poet writing in English, in North America in 2018, employing ‘grass’ as a poetic image, cannot but do so but in a cultural field defined by Whitman, which rides the violent founding of the United States and the ecocidal globalization of Western civilization in the 20th and 21st centuries, along with democracy, science, technology, and the many liberties we enjoy which previous people may not have.

Talk about going meta…

And yet one loves Whitman. We didn’t take the time to dwell with Andrew’s poem, but I believe it’s as true as any critique because the Cosmic Whitman transcends (and includes) the American one—Whitman as lover, healer, forefather, and friend transcends Whitman as political opinionator.

Maybe this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that these two statements contradict each other. First, we hear about a Whitman who “provides spiritual cover for genocide.” Which I think is not a very subtle or correct way of reading Whitman whatsoever, tbh. Then we hear that Whitman’s “harm” is not “intentional”…? If someone “provides spiritual cover for genocide,” even if this argument is nonsensical, imo, how would this not then be an intentional act? Why beat around the bush and equivocate?

This is completely undeniable. But poetry can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to history, or linguistics, or cultural criticism. To say that Whitman’s poetry emerges from a haunted, traumatized, wartorn land is just stating the obvious. But these obvious statements - “Shakespeare wrote in the Elizabethan age,” say - do not tell us much, or enough. It’s ridiculous to reduce great poets to social energies, as if writing poetry were some passive sieve-like process, whereby the culture water passes through the poet’s holey head. Where is the granularity here, the intense transmogrifications, transfigurations, churnings, agonies, labor, breakthroughs, of the individual who actively takes his or her culture and/but then creates something actually new from their own selves, their own truths? This all just seems like more (pardon the phrase) Foucault-inspired bullshit, sorry - trying to reduce individuals to history or sociology or whatever. I think it’s a limited way of conceptualizing what poetry is, as well as what vision means, imagination, etc.

Well, then, I contradict myself! But what about my last statement, Andrew?

Is the Poet so supernal and pure that he only transcends his culture and doesn’t include it, or so common that he can be reduced to what he’s transcended? Close reading! There is an integral move here if you allow the contrasts their due.

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I just feel like we are so quick, even 200 years later, to critique Whitman, when we don’t even know how to read him. For a contemporary example, think of Ben Lerner. (Have people out there read him? I am a big fan.). People love to broadcast their hate for Lerner. Why? Because our culture is haunted by a sort of chaotic impressionableness. Abstractions. Lerner is White, cis, very smart. So people see this and they get jealous, or feel insecure. But instead of using that energy to do something interesting - write a novel that revises Lerner, a book review, something - they just whine on Twitter. It’s meaningless, immature.

A good example of actually saying something interesting, and revising a writer’s work, is Patricia Lockwood’s mind-bogglingly fantastic recent review of John Updike’s novels in the London Review of Books.

Whitman is an easy target. He cares about his country and he cares about the world. He is also impassive and, in his more enigmatic moments, quite unattached. We cannot read Whitman because he surpasses us. Our readings of him reflect on us more than him.

I don’t feel like hanging out in critique, but you did introduce the #cancel articles, I assume not merely so we could shoot them down and return to our privileged loafing, but to take seriously the challenge and yawping back they present. Fwiw, I prefer the body electric to postmodern critique.

For what it’s worth, I am reminded that there are two types of knowledge, intellectual knowledge (facts that we have learned, what is called declarative memory) and visceral knowledge (facts that emerge from our own emotional experience, what is sometimes called episodic memory). For example, we know intellectually that people with disability struggle in society, are discriminated against, and so forth. But until we experience disability ourselves, or someone close to us does, this intellectual knowledge does little to change our habits. We will unconsciously fall into patterns of behaviour that are discriminatory, and not even know that we are doing so. When we gain visceral knowledge, however, we begin to act in direct ways, to bring about change. It is why militant movements are so important. Being confronted with someone who experiences discrimination, and who challenges yourself as a participant in this discrimination, can constitute a form of visceral knowledge. We may be defensive during the event, but we come away changed nonetheless. And from then on, or after several such encounters, we can become active advocates for change.

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I found this interesting, but it was a bit oblique and indirect. I want to make sure I understand this in the context of the discussion. So: is the logic here that Whitman had intellectual knowledge of marginalized populations - African Americans, Native Americans, and so on - but not visceral knowledge of them? And then would it follow that more “suspicious” readings of Whitman (“suspicious” related to what has been called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”), or, to use your term, Geoffrey, “militant,” would be necessary to confront Whitman, or interpretations of Whitman, in order to sort of impart this visceral knowledge?

Whitman actually had a brother with severe disabilities. Here (article from Walt Whitman archive):


Excerpt from short article:

While the specifics of Edward’s incapacities are thus somewhat blurred, there is little question regarding the closeness of the relationship between him and his brother Walt. In the mid-1850s the two shared a bed in the attic of their mother’s house in Brooklyn. Referring to entries in the poet’s notebooks of that time, Paul Zweig suggests that Whitman’s feelings for Edward may have been complicated by guilt-producing eroticism. Such is not unlikely but remains unverifiable; what appears certain is the bond of affection that lasted throughout their lives. In 1888, days after Walt Whitman had suffered a series of debilitating strokes, Eddy, on the way to enter the asylum at Blackwood, New Jersey, where he would spend his last four years, was brought to see the aging poet. According to Horace Traubel, the two exchanged a few words, then sat for a long time in silence, Walt holding Eddy’s hand. In the intervening decades Whitman had not only contributed generously to Eddy’s support and seen to it that he was well cared for, but had treated him with a humane respect and brotherly affection not forthcoming from the other Whitman brothers. He made Edward the principal beneficiary of his will, though the largesse was unnecessary, for Eddy lived only eight months longer than Walt.

I agree that there is a difference between intellectual and visceral knowledge, and that change only happens from the “visceral” or emotional/feeling/experiential level. I always liked Richard Rorty because he argued the same thing, though he talked about it in terms of one’s “self-image,” and that we change when we want to change our self-image. But, if my summary of your post’s logic is correct or almost correct (is it?), then it also seems to be assuming that if we have visceral knowledge of one marginalized population (Whitman’s relationship to Edward, Whitman’s own homosexuality), but not of another (African Americans, say, or Native Americans) then we are doomed forever to intellectual knowledge about those specific populations, and not visceral knowledge. If that is the argument being made, then I disagree. I think, when we become acquainted with suffering, of whatever kind, then we can relate on a deeper level to others’ suffering. Clearly Walter Whitman had ambivalent feelings about African-Americans and Native Americans. But in his best moments, when he wrote his perfect poems, when he was Walt, I think he used his own sorrow, sadness and suffering to relate at a very deep level with other human beings, like the runaway slave, the prostitute, really every single being in his poems. That’s the thing - people have dignity in Whitman’s poems. His best poems, let me qualify - his worst poems are caricatures of himself. But in his best work, we see people the way I think we should see them - incommensurably unique (but not special), and utterly dignified, beautiful, even holy.

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I think your reading of my propos is correct overall. I was only citing disability issues because it is something I know about. And I agree with you, there has to be “crossover” from one form of oppression to another, although unless we actively seek out information about how discriminatory practices are in play in each group, we may still participate unintentionally in these acts. That is an example where intellectual knowledge must work together with visceral knowledge to enhance our sensitivity.

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