Apr 20 2012

Walt Whitman – A child said What is the grass?

Published by at 10:30 am under Poetry

[6] A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands (from Song of Myself)
by Walt Whitman

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? 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?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Canuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roof of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.

— from Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman

/ Photo by NJ /

Whitman’s meditation on grass. I can tell, a few of you are rolling your eyes. After all, it’s just… well, grass. The same green plant surrounding every suburban home, and growing tall in every field and hillside all over the world. We tread on it every day. We know what grass is: it’s forgettable.

Not so, says Whitman. We think we know what grass is and remain ignorant. It’s easy through familiarity to become blind. We see a lawn, mentally label it as “grass,” and never really look or bother to know this plant with which we share so much of the world.

This is what is so startling and refreshing about Whitman’s opening line–

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

This seems to me the most honest response. Most people presume they know exactly what grass is and can therefore dismiss it from their awareness. But the poet properly sees in it a vast, living mystery to be considered.

With Whitman we ask, what is grass really?

It is green hope. It is a handkerchief flirtatiously dropped by God to draw our thoughts to the lovely Face. It is the “babe of vegetation,” the embodiment of new life and new growth in the plant world.

It is a hieroglyphic, a message layered with hidden meaning. It is a universal teaching encoded in life itself: Like the world’s green grasses, we must give generously of ourselves, equally to high and low, without regard to race or nation. Like the grass, it is our nature to grow and to be present, to share our life in every land and landscape.

Then Whitman enters an extended meditation on how grass connects life and death–

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves…
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men…

Why this gloomy turn? He doesn’t just imagine the graves of the elderly, people who had lived a full measure of life, but he sees too the graves of young men even infants “taken soon out of their mothers’ laps.” It is important to remember that Whitman is writing in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In fact, during the war, he worked in the New York hospitals. He well knew the unromantic realities of war, how the young are sacrificed, the loss of an entire generation.

But you notice here, and elsewhere in his poetry, he makes room even for suffering and violence and death in his philosophy. While he clearly has a compassionate heart, he doesn’t simply label some experiences as unjust which he will then heroically oppose. Instead, it is as if he watches it all — the beauty and the suffering, everything — unfolding… within himself. It is all him; it is all in the scope of his being. Doing this, he accomplishes a truly courageous feat: integration.

Through that integration, we gain a new vision. We see not life with its end in death, but a living, organic flow of life becoming life becoming life, a perpetual vision of self-renewal. And the grass is the embodiment of this process.

While the dead lie beneath the ground, this green life grows from their now quiet bodies, nourished by their hopes. From the dead comes such pure, delicate new life.

Though there is definitely much to be mourned in Whitman’s catalog of the dead, personally I find it profoundly healing. The grass, the growth of new life, seems to draw even the most “wrongful” death into a realm of wholeness and continuity. This vision, which has made room for death, yet understood it as part of a greater unfolding of life, welcomes us back into the family of life. Is it weird to say that?

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.

Don’t you love that line?

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

That last line, every time I read it I am brought to a halt, ready to laugh out loud. What is he saying? “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”

This whole poem has been his observation of how life renews itself, even through death. But here Whitman seems to be implying something more personal and open-ended, as if his meditation has led him to the awareness that death is a sort of initiation into a broader participation in existence. He doesn’t seem to espouse a simplistic notion of life after death, but he definitely implies a continuation of awareness beyond death. What do you think he intended? Or did he intend a specific meaning at all? Maybe it’s more of a teasing, Zen-like riddle that doesn’t offer an answer so much as a pathway of questioning…

Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Walt Whitman

US (1819 – 1892) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic : Transcendentalist

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s. At the age of twelve Whitman began to learn the printer’s trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of 17, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career. He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a “free soil” newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his subsequent career, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life. He wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals. Whitman stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington he lived on a clerk’s salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him “purses” of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother’s house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden. In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

— from Poets.org

More poetry by Walt Whitman

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Walt Whitman – A child said What is the grass?”

  1. Carol Burnson 20 Apr 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Hello Ivan,

    I was right here when you sent this poem – and perhaps since I am older, wasn’t
    rolling my eyes – just enjoying the language and his abandon. The commentary
    was wonderful and I am enjoying spring in Ohio this year, like never before.
    Thanks for this beautiful poem, truly touched my heart and I will share with
    several people I know. Such a gift. . .

  2. franon 20 Apr 2012 at 6:42 pm

    “….death is a sort of initiation into the broader participation of existance.” I resinate with and thank you for that line. I see it as death in everyday life , allowing for a deeper awareness of my inner and outer worlds. My worlds are dying slowly and quickly. But I cannot help but see , feel, sense the transformation, albiet painful and it’s necessity. So, it is majorly affirming to me to read this and every poem , commentary, thought for the day….grateful to you.
    Also, I must confess I really never read the very long poems, hahaha, funny how I read this one when needed it. Anyway, I am grateful for the divine flow to and through you…..as always.

  3. janet bradleyon 23 Apr 2012 at 3:55 am

    My dad used to pick up a blade of grass, or a leaf or a flower and say “how can anyone deny that there is a God?” I loved this poem and am so happy to have it in my heart now. My dad’s birthday just passed – he would have been 95 and was a wonderful human being. Thank you for illuminating his memory with a beautiful poem. xx Janet

  4. jim carlinon 23 Apr 2012 at 8:09 am

    “onward thru the fog”

    0ut of the ashes the phoenix arises

    j carlin m d temp c o 1st hospital co chu lai vn 65-66

  5. jim carlinon 23 Apr 2012 at 8:12 am

    flower in the crannied wall-the first poem my dad read to me

  6. rena navonon 25 Apr 2012 at 5:13 am

    It takes Carl Sandburg to find poetry in a blade of grass but it makes his readers multiply to get them to read him and understand what he is trying to say. His lines flow and his meaning is steady and lucid, never halting or ambiguous. It would be hard to imagine the league of poets without him.
    With the innocence of a child Carl Sandburg trusts us readers to take his lead in believing in the world–the one we live in–and make peace with the one we don’t, but will have to embrace in the end when it embraces us. Ready we will never be, nor do we have to, for it will take us ready or not. But if we believe it will be easier and for that Sandburg keeps giving his message again and again. To prepare us as much as he can. And genuinely so, as he speaks from his heart. Thank you, amen.

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