Footprints of Whitman


By Doc Searls
May 8, 1996

The first time I truly heard Walt Whitman was when Garrison Keillor read selections from "Song of Myself," accompanied by Leo Kottke on guitar. I was driving North on highway 280 south of San Francisco, on the spine of The Peninsula. The setting sun made silhouettes of the mountains to the West, and brightened the fog in the long valleys below. Beneath the fog lay the Crystal Springs and San Andreas reservoirs, the latter of which gives its name to the world's most famous fault. The setting was perfect. So was the reading.

I was so knocked out by what I heard that I had to pull over and stop the car. Here, I knew, was Truth with a captital T:

Urge and urge and urge...
Always the procreant urge of the world...
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance...
Always substance and increase...
Always a knit of identity...
Always distinction...
Always a breed of life.

This man, "Walt Whitman, American," wrote with the same force and arrogance as Beethoven. But while Beethoven was "a titan, wrestling with the gods" (as Wagner put it), Whitman was an ordinary man with a calm awareness of the holy power in us all.

"I know I am solid and sound," he said. "To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow. All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means."

Thank God he didn't keep what he got from the rest of us.

I know I am deathless.
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter's compass,

I know that I am august.
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

The elementary laws never apologize.

How rude of them.

To a born apologizer like me, these words spoke like a burning bush. They pushed aside the overpaid guardian at the gates of my soul, walked into my sanctum and told me who I was.

Later I bought a copy of Leaves of Grass, and abridged it to a size I could carry in my pocket. It isn't the only scripture that guides my life. But it's about the most reliable.

"If you want me again look for me under your boot soles," Whitman said.

Or in your pocket. Or in your browser.

Scholars may fault what I've done to Whitman's book-long Song. I won't apologize. If a few footprints of his stanzas do for you what they do for me, the effort is more than worthwhile for both of us.

Finally, I offer this piece with grace and love to Peter Searls, my firstborn son. More than anybody I know, Pete is the "bold swimmer" Whitman wills us all to become.

From Song of Myself
by Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself.
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul.
I lean and loafe at my ease...
observing a spear of summer grass.

I will go to the bank by the wood
and become undisguised and naked.
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,
My perspiration and inspiration ...
The beating of my heart,
The passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves,
and of the shore, and dark colored sea-rocks,
and of hay in the barn.

The sound of the belched words of my voice...
words loosed to the eddies of the wind.
A few light kisses, a few embraces,
a reaching around of arms.
The play of shine and shade on the trees
as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets,
or along the fields and hillsides.
The feeling of health.
The song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

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 many millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand...
nor look through the eyes of the dead,
nor feed on the spectres in books.
You shall not look through my eyes either,
nor take things from me.
You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.

I have heard what the talkers were talking.
The talk of the beginning and the end.
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance...
Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity... always distinction...
always a breed of life.

Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

Clear and sweet is my soul...
and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both...
And the unseen is proved by the seen
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst,
age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things,
while they discuss I am silent,
and go and bathe and admire myself.

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me,
and of any man hearty and clean.
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile,
and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating,
idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm
on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its own sidecurved head curious
what will come next,
Both in and out of the game,
And watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days
where I sweated through fog with linguists
and contenders.
I have no mockings or arguments. I witness and wait.

I believe in you my soul.
The other I am must not abase itself to you.
And you must not be abased to the other.

Loafe with me on the grass.
Loose the stop from your throat.
Not words, not music or rhyme I want.
Not custom or lecture, not even the best.
Only the lull I like. The hum of your valved voice.

I recall how we lay in June,
such a transparent summer morning.
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,
And reached till you felt my beard,
and reached till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me
the peace and joy and knowledge that
pass all the art and argument
of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God
is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God
is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers,
And the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a product of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in little wells beneath them.

Fetching it to me with full hands, a child said, What is the grass?
How can I answer? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition,
out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,
that we may see and remark and say Whose?

And now it seems to me
the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

I wish I could translate these hints
about the dead young men and women.
and the hints about old men and mothers,
and the offspring soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of them?

They are alive and well somewhere.
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.

All goes outward, and nothing collapses.
And to die is different from what any one supposed,
and luckier.

Has anyone supposed it is lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die,
and I know it.

I pass death with the dying, and birth
with the new-washed babe
... and am not contained between my hat and boots.
I peruse manifold objects, no two alike,
and every one good.
The earth good, the stars good,
and all their adjuncts good.

But I am not an earth nor and adjunct of an earth.
I am the mate and companion of people,
all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.
They do not know how immortal, but I know.

The press of my foot to the earth
springs a hundred affections.
They scorn the best I can do to relate them.

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands.
They are not original with me.
If they are not yours as much as mine
they are nothing or next to nothing.
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing.
If they are not the riddle and the undying of the riddle
they are nothing.
If they are not just as close as they are distant
they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows
wherever the land is and the water is.
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

This is the breath of laws and songs and behavior.
This is the tasteless water of souls.
This is the true sustenance.
It is for the illiterate.
It is for the judges of the supreme court.
It is for the federal capitol and state capitols.
It is for the admirable communities of literary men
and composers and singers and lecturers
and engineers and savans.
It is for the endless races of working people
and farmers and seamen.

This is the trill of a thousand clear cornets and cream of the octave flute and strike of triangles.

I play not a march for victors only.
I play great marches for conquered and slain persons.
Have your heard it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall.
Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

I sound triumphal drums for the dead.
Vivas for those who have failed, whose war vessels
and selves sank in the sea.
To all generals who lost engagements,
and all who overcome heroes.
Every kind for itself and its own...
for mine male and female,
For all that have been boys that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels
how it stings to be slighted.
For me the sweetheart and the old maid...
for me the mothers and the mothers of mothers
For me the lips that have smiled,
eyes that have shed tears,
For me the children and the begetters of children.

Who need be afraid of the merge?
you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded.
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
I can never be shaken away.

This is the press of a bashful hand...
this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips to yours...
this is the murmur of yearning.
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting
in my own face,
This is the thoughtful merge of myself
and the outlet again.

Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have... for the April rain has,
and the mica on the side of a rock has.

This hour I tell things in confidence.
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.

In all people I see myself, none more
and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.
All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means.
I know I am deathless.
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter's compass,

I know that I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

I exist as I am, that is enough.
If no other in the world be aware I sit content.
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
and that is myself.
And whether I come to my own today
or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I cheerfully take it now,
or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite.
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.

I am a poet of the body,
And I am a poet of the soul.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man.
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I chant a new chant of dilation and pride.
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough.
I show that size is only development.

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle.
They will more than arrive there every one,
and still pass on.

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night.
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.

Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of the departed sunset!
Earth of the mountains misty topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon
just tinged with blue!
Smile, for you lover comes!

Prodigal! you have given me love!
Therefor I give you love!
O unspeakable passionate love!
Thurster holding me tight that I hold tight!

We hurt each other
as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other

You sea! I resign myself to you also...
I guess what you mean.
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers.
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me.
We must have a turn together.
I undress. Hurry me out of sight of the land.
Cushion me soft. Rock me in billowy drowse.
Dash me with amorous wet. I can repay you!
Howler and scooper of storms!
Capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you.
I too am of one phase and all phases.

I am the poet of common sense
and of the demonstrable and of immortality.
And am not the poet of goodness only.

What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me.
I stand indifferent.
My gait is no faultfinder's or rejecter's gait.
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Did you fear some scrofula out
of the unflagging pregnancy?
Did you guess the celestial laws are yet
to be worked over and rectified?

I step up to say what we do is right,
and what we affirm is right,
and some is only the ore of right.
Soft doctrine a steady help as stable doctrine.
Thoughts and deeds of the present
our rouse and early start.

This minute that comes to me over the past decillions.
There is no better than it and now.

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs,
a cosmos.
Disorderly fleshy and sensual...
eating, drinking and breeding.
No sentimentalist... no stander above men and women
or apart from them... no more modest than immodest.

Whoever degrades another degrades me.
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
And whatever I do or say I also return.

Through me the afflatus surging and surging.
Through me current and index.

I speak the password primeval.
I give the sign of democracy.
By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have
their counterpart on the same terms.

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the generations of slaves,
of prostitutes and deformed persons,
f the diseased and despairing,
of thieves and dwarves.
Of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars
-- and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of the fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts. Voices veiled,
and I remove the veil.
Voices indecent are by me clarified and transfigured.
I do not press my finger across my mouth.
I keep as delicate around the bowels
as around the head and heart.

Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites.
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles,
and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine I am inside and out;
and make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

If I worship any particular thing it shall be some
of the spread of my body.
Shared ledges and rests, firm muscular coulter,
it shall be you.
Breast that presses against other breasts, it shall be you.
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn
it shall be you.
Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you.
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals
rub against me it shall be you.
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed,
mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.

I dote upon myself. There is that lot of me,
and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy.

I cannot tell how my ankles bend...
nor whence the cause of my faintest wish.

A morning glory at my window
satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

To behold the daybreak!
The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows.
The air tastes good to my palate.

Hefts of the moving world turn on innocent bearings,
silently rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.

Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs.
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.

The earth by the sky staid
with the daily close of their junction.
The heaved challenge from the east that moment
over my head,
The mocking taunt, See then whether you shall be master!

Dazzling and tremendous how quick
the sunrise would kill me
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of my self.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun.
We found our own way my soul in
the calm and cool of the daybreak.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach.
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds
and volumes of worlds.

Speech is the twin of my vision...
it is unequal to measure itself.
It provokes me forever.
It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough --
why don't you let it out then?

Come now, I will not be tantalized.
You make too much of articulation.

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

Writing and talk do not prove me.
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else
in my face.
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.

All truths wait in all things.
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any.
What is less or more than a touch?

Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so.
Only what nobody denies is so.

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals.
They are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied.
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable or industrious over all the earth.

I am a free companion. I bivouac by invading watchfires.

I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.

My voice is the wife's voice,
the screech by the rail of the stairs,
They fetch my man's body up dripping and drowned.
I understand the large hearts of heroes.
The courage of present and all times.
I am the man. I suffered. I was there.

I am the hounded slave. I wince at the bite of the dogs.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments.

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels.
I myself am the wounded person.
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane
and observe.

Distant and dead resuscitate.
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me...
and I am the clock myself.

The friendly and flowing savage: who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization or past it and mastering it?
Behavior lawless as snowflakes. Words simple as grass.
Uncombed head and laughter and naivete.
They descend in new forms from the tips of his fingers.
They are wafted with the odor of his body and breath.
They fly out of the glance of his eyes.

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,
open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you.
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets.
I am not to be denied. I compel.
I have stores plenty and to spare.
And anything I have I bestow.

I do not ask who you are. That is not important to me.
You can do nothing and be nothing
but what I will infold you.

I seize the descending ;man.
I raise him with resistless will.

O despairer, here is my neck.
By God, you shall not go down.
Hang your whole weight upon me.

I dilate you with tremendous breath. I buoy you up.
Every room of your youse do I fill with an armed force.

The weakest and shallowest is deathless with me.
What I do and say the same waits for them.
Every thought that flounders in me
the same flounders in them.

I know perfectly well my own egotism.
And I know my omnivorous words,
and cannot say any less.
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

I do not know what is untried and afterward,
But I know it is sure and alive and sufficient.

It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.

I am an acme of things accomplished,
and I an encloser of things to be.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me.
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing,
the vapor from the nostrils of death.
I know I was even there.
I waited unseen and always.
And slept while God carried me
through the lethargic mist.
And took my time.

Long I was hugged close. Long and long.
Infinite have been the preparations for me.
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing
like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings.
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother
generations guided me.
My embryo has never been torpid.
Nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb.
The long slow strata piled to rest it on.
Vast vegetables gave it substance.
Monstrous animals transported it in their mouths
and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed
to complete and delight me.
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

I know that I have the best of time and space.
And that I was never measured, and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey.
My signs are a rainproof coat, good shoes
and a staff cut from the wood.

Each man and woman of you I lead upon a knoll.
My left hand hooks you about the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes and continents,
and a plain public road.

Not I, nor any one else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born
and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

Shoulder your duds, and I will mine,
and let us hasten forth.

If you tire, give me both burdens and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip.
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me.

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

I concentrate toward them that are nigh.
I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day's work
and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me.
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any
on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the desk.

I depart as air.
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt and grow
from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean.
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.
And filtre and fiber your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me one place search another
I stop some where waiting for you.

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