Friday, January 17, 2014

Whitman re-read aloud.

You could hear it in his voice, breaking as he read the paragraph.  He said that back "in hippie times" it was taped to the walls of dorms around campus, which in this case was at Williams in the 1970s. 

A professor now, he read Whitman aloud to a classroom filled with students, 40 years later. It brought that moment back to life, as fresh in that brief fluctuation in his voice as it was new then.  Walt Whitman is nothing if not American rebirth and renewal and that decade was all about American rebirth and renewal.   Reading Whitman in 1970s America.  Remembering reading Whitman in 1970s America.  The text triggers the memory and the memory retrieves the moment, a moment of awakening and rebirth.  Political, poetical, personal.  In that waver in his voice, we all crossed a bridge of four decades of life.

That personal moment is also the cultural moment. This is how culture is transmitted.  This is how culture is maintained, across geography and generations.  This is why culture is transmitted.  It's the conveyance of someone's very important moment to explain why we should care.  It's why we still gather in groups, professors professing, students absorbing, meaning and feeling, on and on.  It's why culture is cumulative.

Here's the paragraph from Whitman's preface to Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body … The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work.  He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured … others may not know it but he shall.  He shall go directly to the creation.  His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches .. and shall master all attachment.