Wednesday, September 3, 2014

This Compost

Walt Whitman

(for the text of this poem,
 click here for its page at 
 the Academy of American Poets: )

Whitman the naive, the passionate, the eternal-optimist, the religious pagan, for whom every moment of existence, however small, however mundane, was a sensual delight, a joyful ecstasy, a miracle. 

"This Compost" is not a mere poem: it is a sacrifice of words, a wave-offering upon the altar of poetry itself, dedicated to the omnipresent Pulse: a hymn of praise, an encomium, a eulogy, a panegyric, a blessing, a paean (including that technique of deliberate repetition-by-variation that I have just imitated, synonymisation to coin a phrase), offered like the recitation of a mantra; the orchestrated iteration, like the counting of rosary beads: less an aesthetic technique than a monastic Rule, the spiritual method of the fanatical devotee. To hate Whitman is to hate Life itself. 

In Whitman's hands, poetry becomes a form of mystical symbiosis, an evocation of the Primal Urge. There is nothing in literature with which to compare it, unless perhaps the Hindu Vedas, the Psalms of the Old Testament; though his voice echoes in many who have followed: D.H. Lawrence certainly, the Gide of "Les Nourritures Terrestres",perhaps also Ted Hughes' "Crow". 

"This Compost" is a litany of regeneration; death in the soul mirroring death in the physical universe, then transmuted, until the soul's fire is re-kindled in the renascence of Earth. A simple, perhaps a trite message - yet never so ecstatically expressed, never so supremely confident of the miraculous nature of created life, never so amazed, so awe-struck: so idolatrous.

(Note the archaic apostrophisation: form'd, hatch'd; the antiquated spelling: dropt - echoes of the Biblical prophets in the language of King James.)

But to honour a poet properly, one should surely write one's tribute in the form of poetry, or at the very least prose-poetry. This, from my collection of short stories, "The Captive Bride" (click here to buy a copy!):


Vision in dream is patterned like time in memory, random and fragmentary, isolating incidents like objects seen through a cobweb or an image reflected in a sheet of breaking glass...

I remember dreaming the pale light of a star that reached me a million years after the star burned out, and the darkness which the light accentuated, and the skyscape which stretched into oblivion.

I remember dreaming the dry, silent stalks of grass, distended over dilapidated coffins, withering into their own pale winters, above the farm where Menelaus was buried, and where a man named Bellafiore will one day unearth his rusted sword.

I remember dreaming the cedars of Tyre, their roots rotten with dried leaves, their trunks heavy with unspeakable fossils, which I would later transport through time and space and set below the imaginary village of my novel.

I remember dreaming the long, slow river, at once Jordan and Euphrates, flowing darker than blood, endless as human suffering - the teeming river of History.

I remember dreaming the eternal sand that lay buried in the sea’s hourglass, and it was the same sand that Proust sifted, the same sand whose riddles Moses read.

I remember dreaming, and finally I remember dreaming a single, solitary man, who stood in the centre of this oblique labyrinth, bearded and manifold, ageless, standing now upon the steep, undaunted bank, firm as any rock, relentless as a summer drought, stumbling now towards some wild, lucid uncertainty - Whitman the chronicler, who published the sad statistics of this aimless, rootless world, who imagined that he was this gaunt, proud universe, and wrote its autobiography.

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