Grass in “Song of Myself”

The section of “Song of Myself” that stands out to me in particular is the sixth section where Whitman discusses grass. From the title of “Leaves of Grass” it is obvious that grass has some significance to Whitman. Within this section Whitman tries to grasp “What is the grass?” spawning from a child’s question. Whitman goes on to attempt to answer this question all though he makes it clear that he is unsure of the answer. Right away I find it intriguing that Whitman devotes an entire section of “Song of Myself” to answering the question of a child, especially a question that would normally be passed over by most adults.

How Whitman chooses to answer the question is even more puzzling. He makes several guesses as to what grass might be or represent. Whtiman’s guesses range widely from “the flag of my disposition” to “the handkercheif of the Lord” to “a uniform hieroglyphic.” Interestingly, Whitman ties all of the guesses back to the human condition at least in some vague way. The second part of section six focuses on grass as the “uncut hair of grass” Whitman imagines the deceased humans from which grass grows. Whitman continues the metaphor of seeing grass as the rebirth of the dead into the cyclical nature of life. He makes this a hopeful message by saying that death is actually “luckier” than life.

The way that Whitman speaks about matter never disappearing just being reused and reformed feels almost scientific. Yet Whitman is being entirely poetic saying “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses” but I cannot help but wonder what Whitman knew of the scientific recycling of energy. This passage also seems to be religious in ways by focusing on death and referencing the Lord. Although, he seems to be channeling ideas of Hinduism or Buddhism instead of typical Western religions. My thoughts are full of tangents coming from just one section of “Song of Myself” which as a poem was filled with many thought provoking sections. There are almost as mean blades of grass in a field as tangents in Whitman’s poetry.


One Response to Grass in “Song of Myself”

  1. Prof VZ February 14, 2016 at 9:10 pm #

    Yes, Whitman is a poet of tangents, indeed; his poetry often grows rhizomatically, like the grass–not well structured like a tree, but dispersive and varied like grass. I like how you approach this famous passage by noting how cool it is that he spends time answering the question of a child. Children, in romantic poetry, often embody a sort of pre-fall innocence, so in that sense there is some precedent to taking such an inquiry seriously. And one final note: Whitman is, indeed, a poetic recycler. He recycled his own poems in version after version of Leaves of Grass; he has what some have called a compost-based poetics, which captures but his interest in and faith in regeneration, and the ways in which this relates to his “composing” / “composting” poetic method.

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