Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Better Mysticism Through Science: Walt Whitman’s Unity of Science and Metaphysics in Leaves of Grass

© mykl sivak
Better Mysticism Through Science: Walt Whitman’s Unity of Science and Metaphysics in Leaves of Grass

Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with
his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidólons

(Whitman 8, lines 61-64).

Even upon a merely cursory reading of Leaves of Grass, it should be clear to most readers that the sciences occupied a highly important position in the poetic and philosophical worldview of Walt Whitman as expressed in his lifelong project. Whitman himself stressed the importance of science in his poetry in one of his anonymously written self-reviews of Leaves as Edward Hungerford describes in his article “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps”:

[Whitman’s] determination to base his work solidly upon science is made apparent: ‘Not geology, nor mathematics, not chemistry, nor navigation, nor astronomy, nor anatomy, nor physiology, nor engineering, is more true to itself than Walt Whitman is true to them’ (Hungerford 369).

What exactly it was that so sparked Whitman’s imagination and led him to include so much scientific material into his writings is up to interpretation. Indeed, there has been much scholarly criticism completed that investigates the positioning of science in the works of Whitman; and for as many articles on this subject there are nearly as many divergences of opinion. To do true justice to the subject matter, as well as the various facets of the critical discussion, is certainly far beyond the scope of this brief essay. I will, however, attempt to present as comprehensive a primer as possible in the space available by directly investigating excerpted passages from the text of Leaves of Grass and a diverse selection of criticism on this subject. The end result will be a thorough interpretation of the position and role of science in the poetic works of Walt Whitman.

It is common knowledge that Whitman was highly influenced by Emerson and the Transcendentalists. However, to categorize Whitman as a true Emersonian is probably incorrect. Joseph Beaver, in his book Walt Whitman—Poet of Science, expresses the distinction as follows: “...Emerson held that man was the measure of the universe; Whitman held that the universe was the measure of man. To Whitman, man is the ‘microcosm of all Creation’s wildness’” (Beaver 125). Elsewhere he states, “... [T]o Emerson, science was a confirmation of the moral laws; to Whitman, the laws of science, as he understood them, were the moral laws” (Beaver 123). It is clear from these brief excerpts that to Beaver the primary deviation between Whitman and the Emersonian Transcendentalists is the positioning and interpretation of science within the respective philosophical paradigms of these people. Emerson, as is illustrated in his essays such as Nature, expressed the belief in a profound and mystical connection between the individual and nature. He constructed a complicated framework, through which the individual, the Deity, and nature interact. Though such a construction shares certain thematic similarities with the worldview espoused by Whitman, there are indeed some major differences. As if evoking the call to “simplify” so enthusiastically championed by that other most-famous of Emerson’s disciples Henry David Thoreau, Whitman’s universal structure is more direct and arguably more self-evident than the oftentimes ambiguous construction of Emerson. As Beaver puts it:

“Whitman, indeed, felt no contradiction between his ‘spirituality’ and his science. His aim, rather, was to combine scientific materialism and what critics usually call his mysticism” (Beaver 129).

Arthur Wrobel, in his article “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul” concurs with this notion: “On the whole, Whitman’s early thinking is essentially materialistic monism” (Wrobel 21). Many critics share Wrobel’s opinion that Whitman’s worldview is indeed one of materialism, including Kepner who writes: “...the emphasis Whitman places on a kind of mystical oneness seems to be completely incompatible with a materialistic, scientific point of view” (Kepner 181). Though there is occasional mention of God in the poet’s works, It seems clear that in Whitman’s conception, there is no anthropomorphic deity. Indeed, it is arguable that Whitman saw the mere existence of the universe (which Emerson might have viewed as “Creation”) as the pinnacle of the universal structure. In other words, the existence of the Universe is an expression of its own “creation”; the individual is a part of the universe, and science is the study of the laws inherent to the universe. Maximilian Beck writes, in his article “Walt Whitman’s Intuition of Reality,” “...[For Whitman] the value of anything that exists does not lie in its specific quality, in what it is, but purely in its own being” (Beck 14).

It seems Whitman was enamored with existence. He seems to have been fascinated with the inner workings of the Universe, which were profound to him in that through the relation of these laws to himself, he saw the connection between himself and the universe, to use his term, en mass. As Wrobel puts it: “Body and soul are merged into an indivisible One” (Wrobel 20). Alfred H. Marks, in his article “Whitman’s Triadic Imagery,” finds the influence of Hegel’s conception of dualism at the core of what he calls “Whitman’s union of body and soul” (Marks 103): “Since one’s soul belongs to one half of the dualism and one’s body the other, the self which unifies them is certainly a divine synthesis, both actually and symbolically” (Marks 103). Though this may be true, I believe it is somewhat difficult to nail down precisely what Whitman is referring to when he refers to “the soul.” It is in this single concept that Whitman’s greatest conceptual ambiguity may be expressed; for though he speaks often of the soul, I do not believe he ever explicitly distinguishes it from the physical existence of the individual. Beaver seems to concur with this notion: “Whitman’s materialistic mysticism, his repeated assertion that the body is the soul, that it is only through the body that the soul is realized...” (Beaver 98). Kepner alludes to Whitman’s scientific understanding of Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and electrical theory as being implicit to his “mystical” conceptualization of the individual’s place in the universe: “We never see a material shape without also seeing an ‘immaterial’ behavior, because matter and energy are completely inseparable” (Kepner 189). Indeed, throughout Leaves of Grass there is a constant reiteration of the concept of “the seen” as paired with its antithetical companion “the unseen.” One example of the thesis/antithesis of the visible and the invisible comes from Section 16 of “Song of Myself”:

“(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place, | The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place, | The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)” (Whitman 40, Lines 351-354).

Implicit in these lines is the concept of visibility and invisibility. It seems that the primary difference between these concepts rest within the limitations/abilities of the physicality of the individual. By using the terms “palpable” and “impalpable,” Whitman emphasizes the existence of these things while expressing that the reason they are unseen is based on the individual’s inability to see them, not in their inherent invisibility. This relates to Kepner’s notion of ‘material shapes” and their inseparable “immaterial behavior”(Kepner 189). in other words, Whitman understood that just because something could not be seen, did not mean it did not exist, or more accurately, that it was not a part of the physical world. This concept is strong in Whitman’s writing and may represent the basis for his grouping the body and soul together as one unified unit. Kepner states: “Whitman thinks he has found a common ground between materialism and idealism, between scientific truth and mystical truth...” (Kepner 182). To Whitman, these to truths represent the palpable and impalpable potions of a single unified One. “Whitman denies the existence of neither God nor atom; but he challenges the assumption that the truth of our Being can be explained in terms of only God or only the atom” (Kepner 186). Aspiz also addresses the importance cosmic law has in Whitman’s poetry, and how the poet placed these laws in relation to the individual: “The most magnificent poems in this [second] edition...are all testimonials to the cosmic laws governing and perfecting mankind and to the delicate correspondences between these laws and human experience” (Aspiz 118).

In the preceding passage, Whitman also places these unseen cosmic objects in close proximity to the obviously non-celestial biological forms of “the moth” and “fish eggs;” by doing so, I believe he illustrates that the primary difference between these biological specimens and the celestial objects of the stars, is simply their disproportionate size; and this, in no respect precludes their being listed together as similar objects. In other words, everything, from the very small to the very large, is connected by universal law. This may be Whitman’s concept of a poetical unified theory of the universe (something scientists are still struggling to define today).

It is unclear specifically what Whitman is referring to when he speaks of “dark suns.” It may merely represent a poetic trope designed to express an idea. However, the term seems to allude to a number of specific astronomical phenomena (some of which were unknown in Whitman’s time). The similarity between these real phenomena and the descriptive term “dark suns” may be too close to be merely coincidental. Perhaps the most glaring possibility would be the phenomena of so-called Black Holes, though these were surely unknown in Whitman’s day. Another, more plausible, possibility is linked to the concept of an infinite universe and the speed of light. In an infinite universe there would be an infinite number of stars. That means that every single spot in the night sky would be occupied by a star (or as Whitman called them, a sun). However, light travels at a specific speed, and the further away a light emitting object is from an observer, the longer it takes that light to travel to eyes of said observer. So, if an object was many millions of light years away, it would take many millions of years for the light it emitted to reach the observer. And so, even though there would be an infinite number of stars in the sky, only a certain number would be visible as the light the furthest stars emitted would not yet have reached the Earth. The concept of the speed of light was understood to some extent in Whitman’s time, and some critics have noted the obvious omission of this important and arguably “poetic” scientific concept in Leaves of Grass.

As I will address more fully in a later section. Whitman was quite well versed in the areas of popular and moderately technical astronomy and physics during his lifetime; and though he was well versed in these areas, he often avoided using highly technical astronomical terms in his poetry. Beaver writes: “Though Whitman’s [astronomical] observations are accurate, his terminology is not usually in astronomical jargon; the phrase ‘at night’s meridian,’ for example, has no scientific meaning. And while [Beaver’s] check of all Whitman’s observations of the moon shows that here, too, he was an accurate observer, he does not always use the technical term for the phases of the moon” (Beaver 28). These facts, I believe, open the possibility for the interpretation of the excerpt as I have expressed in the preceding lines; however, like much of Whitman’s tropes, there is a level of ambiguity available to supply the reader with any number of possible interpretations.

As Diane Kepner writes in her article “From Spears to leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself’”: “... [Whitman’s] language of science and nature is always extraordinarily precise and not just mystical metaphor” (Kepner 180). Kepner also adds that: “[Whitman] speaks of matter and its properties, of atoms, of energy and electricity, and of the immutable laws of nature. His overwhelming emphasis on particular objects and his obvious respect for scientific inquiry are consistent with a materialist outlook” (Kepner 180). Though probably no other poet of the nineteenth-century embraced the sciences as much as Whitman, it is clear that the extreme progress made during this period in the areas of secular scientific (as well as philosophical) thought had a great impact on popular society at this time. These rapidly compiling scientific discoveries found their way into the works of a number of poets. Charles I. Glicksburg, in his article “William Cullen Bryant and Nineteenth-Century Science” writes: “Like Wordsworth, Bryant did not believe that poetry must suffer a decline in an age of science and reason” (Glicksberg 93). Christian J. Bay, in his article Some Vital Books in Science: 1848- 1947” discusses some of the ground-breaking scientific studies released during the period in which Whitman was writing. By glossing on the titles of some of these works, it seems likely that Whitman, who was keenly interested in the scientific works of his time, may have found inspiration in these works. Bay writes, “...Humboldt’s “Kosmos first appeared between 1845 and 1849” (Bay 485). It is interesting that the title of this famous work (Spelled the German way) is the same as the idiosyncratic (and for English, improperly spelled) term used often by Walt Whitman in Leaves, as the name of a poem and on multiple occasions in the text; as in Section 24 of “Song of Myself,” when Whitman writes:

“Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, | Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding...” (Whitman 45, lines 497-498).

Another important scientific work of this period cited by Bay is Audubon and Bachman’s The Quadrupeds of North America, published in 1849 (Bay 487). Interestingly, the use of the word “quadrupeds” in the title reminds one of the use of the same word in “Song of Myself,” in a passage cited often by critics as an example of Whitman’s scientific knowledge:

“I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, | grains, esculent roots, | And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over, | And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, | But call any thing back again when I desire it” (Whitman 52, lines 469-472).

In this passage, the poet associates himself with the very Earth, and hints toward his vision of a unified nebular hypothesis, that is, cosmic evolution, and biological evolution. “... [T]he nebular hypothesis and the theory of evolution are often interwoven in Leaves of Grass” (Beaver 80) Such unification was common in Whitman’s work. Beaver writes: “... [I]t is frequently difficult to classify Whitman’s scientific references, as many of them involve more than one science and are difficult to separate” (Beaver 80). Indeed, Whitman seemed to have a keen and imaginative sixth-sense for complicated science. Beaver writes: “Before the publication of The Origin of Species, and without knowledge of la Place’s nebular hypothesis, Whitman sensed the scientific truths involved by some sort of intuitive power—Whitman himself saw the nebula cohering to an orb” (Beaver 11).
In the preceding passage Whitman also hints toward a cyclical version of time when he states the speaker’s ability to “call any thing back again.” The reference to evolution ties in with Darwin’s work of this same period. Bay writes: “In 1859 came Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. In itself, it was epoch making and gave rise to waves of new departures in may fields of thought” (Bay 488). The scientific revolution of the nineteenth-century had at least as strong an effect on Whitman as the works of the Transcendentalists; as Beaver writes:

The astonishing fact is that it is almost impossible to read a page of Leaves of Grass without encountering some sort of scientific allusion, and the total number of passages in which Whitman makes poetic use of scientific materials is certainly greater than the number of pages in Leaves of Grass (Beaver 39).

For Whitman the embracing of science was not limited to the area of astronomical studies. Perhaps more than anything, science found its way into Whitman’s poetry in his exploration of anatomical and physiological subjects. As will be addressed more fully in a later passage, Whitman was extremely influenced (perhaps more than any other scientific, or pseudoscientific, field) by the research of the phrenologists. This strong interest in the human physique is linked to his philosophical conceptualization to the universal laws, and how those laws related to his so-called “mystical” outlook. Aspiz writes:

From the start of his poetic career to his last backward glance, Whitman rejected the dualism of body and soul that had been ingrained in American religious and secular thought. For him the body cannot be vile, for it is the sensuous link to the world of experience; it is the world of experience. It is the only context in which we may understand the world, apprehend the truth, or achieve a state of higher consciousness. This attitude toward the body permitted Whitman to identify with all that is earthly and to translate all promptings and spiritual correspondences into a sensuous, emotion-charged poetic language (Aspiz 248).

As is stated earlier, though references to astronomical phenomena in Leaves of Grass are frequent and important, there is perhaps more emphasis placed on the topic of the human physique in his poetry. That is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive; as I hope I have illustrated to a good extent already, Whitman saw the various scientific fields linked together in a single, “mystical,” universal framework. In fact, it seems that one of the primary projects of Leaves of Grass is the poet’s urge to create a comprehensive fusion of the areas of anatomical, biological, geographical and astronomical sciences (among others), and to intermesh this “super science” with a similarly comprehensive pseudo-mystical philosophical worldview. Also present in Whitman is a touch of what has come to be known as the “Strong Anthropic Principle,” which places humans in a centric observer position in the universe. As Aspiz states: “Whitman’s depictions of the body may be seen as celebrations of his zestful engagement with life, as a revelation of his psyche, or as expressions of his feeling of centrality in the cosmic order” (Aspiz ix). It is perhaps this amalgamation of scientific knowledge with mysticism, along with his possibly Centrally Anthropic conception of the universal superstructure that made it difficult for Whitman to reject the human form as somehow substandard to the “soul.” As Aspiz puts it, “...the soul grows with, and through, the body” (Aspiz 177).

This concept was not entirely novel to Whitman, and some of its roots can be found in the word of the Transcendentalists by whom Whitman was certainly influenced. Aspiz writes: “... [I]n 1848, when Whitman was already dreaming of becoming a poet, [Bronson] Alcott remarked that American poetry must learn to revere the human organism” (Aspiz 242). Aspiz also states: “Also paralleling Whitman’s physiological views, Henry Ward Beech—whose words Whitman was fond of quoting—instructed his congregation that the animal passions are not to be ‘maimed’ but to be ‘trained, guided, restrained...’” (Aspiz 242).

The body is highly important to Whitman. Beaver states: “The science of anatomy was of especial interest to Whitman, supplying as it did detailed information on the body he was, for whatever reason, so profoundly interested in” (Beaver 96). The field of anatomical study that most captured the imagination of Walt Whitman was no doubt the field of phrenology. Though today it has been entirely refuted and invalidated, in Whitman’s day the field was considered to be fairly legitimate and was studies at the nation’s premier institutions of learning. “...phrenology in the mid-nineteenth century was considered a legitimate science, a science, moreover, popular at Harvard an at Yale” (Beaver 97). In England, phrenologists had even gone so far as to perform studies upon the skull of Chaucer; the results of which pleased Whitman in their lusty, manly depiction of the medieval poet (Hungerford 362). the phrenologists, it seems were (at least at first) equally enthusiastic of the poetry of Walt Whitman. As Edward Hungerford presented in his article “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps,” The Phrenological cabinet of Brooklyn was one of the two primary locations to (ostensibly) sell the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “On Friday, July 6, at the bottom of the second column of the first page [of The Tribune], appeared a small notice: ‘Walt Whitman’s Poems, ‘Leaves of Grass,’ IU vol. small quarto, $2, for sale by Swayne, No. 210 Fulton-St., Brooklyn, and by Fowlers and Wells, No. 308 Broadway, N.Y.’ Leaves of Grass was on sale in the Phrenological Cabinet!...John Burroughs recalled that no copies sold” (Hungerford 355).

Perhaps the reason phrenology so sparked the imagination of Walt Whitman was its merging of the mind (or soul) of the individual with his/her physiology. It is perhaps important not to forget that, as Hungerford states: “The only psychology (in the modern sense) which Whitman knew was phrenology” (Hungerford 380). Aspiz states that phrenology also may have attracted Whitman in that its theories had commonalities with things he’d independently come to suspect about the nature of existence: “Phrenology helped Whitman to present his poetic image to the world and to formulate a definition of poetry... [it enabled] him to test the world of experience against his instinctive sense of an ideal world and to correlate material data with spiritual truths” (Aspiz 119). It is probably important to also consider the fact that Whitman was a seriously scientifically minded individual. He believed in scientific observation and empirically tested evidence. This is perhaps why phrenology assisted in his scientifically minded worldview which he had modified to some extent from the more mystical one presented by the Transcendentalists. Arthur Wroble writes, in his article “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul”: “... [Whitman] found in phrenology a scientific confirmation of the merely intuitive truths offered by the Transcendentalists” (Wrobel 22).

Another important consideration is the egotism which is, for whatever reason, so inherent and integral to Walt Whitman. Hungerford offers an in depth recounting of Whitman’s initial experiences with the phrenologists. He states: “... [W]e know that Whitman did go [to the Phrenological Cabinet], and that, one day in July, 1849, he had his bumps read. Walt Whitman was never the same afterward” (Hungerford 362). Hungerford adds: “His ‘chart of bumps’ affected his whole conception of himself...Whitman’s conception of himself is important...That Whitman himself regarded the chart as significant is shown not only from the fact that he preserved it. He had it published five times” (Hungerford 362).

Basically, the way Phrenology works is as follows. The human skull is divided into a series of sections. Each section represents a particular portion or characteristic of the human personality. A phrenologist studies the morphological features a person has in each area, then assigns a number between 1 and 7 for the features in each respective area. As Hungerford explains: “Large development of a desirable organ is good, provided it is not too large. On a scale of 1 to 7, 6 would be very desirable, 7 unfortunate. Too large an organ means a disproportionate, diseased area in the brain. Too small an organ means that a man is lacking in some fundamental quality of human nature” (Hungerford 363). The picture of Whitman expressed by the phrenological reading he received was consistent with the depiction of himself presented in Leaves of Grass: friendly, lusty, amiable, and so on (Hungerford 364). “... [P]hrenology found Whitman an astonishingly developed man” (Hungerford 364).
Wroble sees a direct connection between the poetic/metaphysical nature of the Universe and the view inherent to the phrenologists' art: “Whitman’s own vision of the universe, like that of the phrenologists, stresses its underlying unity, a unity characterized by the exquisite adaptation of all its parts to form an organic and orderly Whole” (Wrobel 18). Indeed, unity is perhaps the best and truest word one can use to describe the fundamental principal of Whitman’s writing. This unity reaches across scientific fields of study, across the apparent divide between science as a whole and the so-called metaphysical, across the divide between the individual, the nature of reality, and the universal laws, and on and on. These concepts link up in an almost cosmic democracy that ties in directly with Whitman’s political and sociological ideologies, and is probably the root of his larger humanism as well as his often stated view of equality across gender lines. Whitman’s view of his role as poet was ultimately one of unity, and crosses the apparent divides of existence. For example, as Edmund Reiss writes in his article “Whitman’s Debt to Animal Magnetism”: “The poet, like the medium, acts as a bridge between the known and the unknown” (Reiss 86).

In conclusion, It seems that Whitman was indeed the “Poet of Science” he claimed to be. He respected the empirical process, and though he was drawn, for example, to schools of thought such as phrenology that would ultimately be invalidated, he was a skeptical and judicious follower of serious scientific progress. Beaver notes that occasionally, Whitman’s position bears strong resemblance to a romantic view of science: “Though Walt Whitman never said anything flatly opposed to science, to men of science, he did on several occasions express feelings which bear a superficial resemblance to what has come to be regarded as the typical ‘romantic’ attitude toward science’ (Beaver 5). However, that resemblance was just that, superficial. It seems that even in Whitman’s so-called metaphysical moments, there is little that can be called outright unscientific about his positions. I believe that, as a religious skeptic, Whitman’s perspective was on par with the leading men of science of his time. Whitman, though short of being a scientist himself, was by no means a scientific poseur. Beaver notes, just “...how thoroughly Whitman went about educating himself in the sciences—how, not content with any one book on the subject, Whitman would add to, supplement, talk to informed persons, write down abstracts and summaries, and compile his own elaborate notebooks on the subject he happened to be studying” (Beaver 8). Ultimately, Whitman’s writing represents a uniting force within the fields of science and metaphysics; and the poetry isn’t bad either.

Works Cited

Aspiz, Harold. “Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful.” Chicago: U. of Illinois P., 1980.

Bay, J. Christian. “Some Vital Books in Science: 1848-1947.” Science, New Series. 107.2785 (May 14, 19480: 485-491.

Beaver, Joseph. “Walt Whitman—Poet of Science.” New York: Octagon Books, 1974.

Beck, Maximilian. “Walt Whitman’s Intuition of Reality.” Ethics. 53.1 (Oct. 1942): 14-24.

DeLancey, Mark. “Texts, Interpretations, and Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’.” American
Literature. 61.3 (Oct. 1989): 359-381.

Glicksberg, Charles I. “William Cullen Bryant and Nineteenth-Century Science.” The New England Quarterly. 23.1 (Mar. 1950): 91-96.

Hungerford, Edward. “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps.” American Literature. 2.4 (Jan.1931): 350-384.

Kepner, Diane. “From Spears to leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself’.” American Literature. 51.2 (May 1979): 179-204.

Marks, Alfred H. “Whitman’s Triadic Imagery.” American Literature. 23.1 (Mar. 1951): 99-126.

Reiss, Edmund. “Whitman’s Debt to Animal Magnetism.” PMLA. 78.1 (Mar. 1963): 80-88.

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of grass, and Other Writings.” New York: Norton, 2002.

Wrobel, Arthur. “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul.” PLMA. 89.1 (Jan. 1974): 17-23.

Works Consulted

Farland, Marcia. “Decomposing City: Walt Whitman’s New York and the Science of Life and
Death.” ELH. 74 (2007): 799-827.

Finkel, William L. “Sources of Whitman’s Manuscript Notes on Physique.” American Literature.
22.3 (Nov. 19500: 308-331.

Miller, Jr., James E. “‘Song of Myself’ as Inverted Mystical Experience.” PLMA. 70.4 (Sep.
1955): 636-661.

Sloan, Gary. “Walt Whitman: Sins Against Science.” Liberator.net. 13, January 2002. 10, May


*An interesting fact: The phrenological head at left, a famous knick-knack seen in such spots as upon Dr. Gregory House's desk, is emblazoned with the name of L.N. Fowler. Incidentally, "Fowler's Phrenological Cabinet" in New York City was the first place to sell Walt Whitman's self-published 1st edition of "Leaves of Grass." It is important to note that though it has been disproved (and rightly so), phrenology is a precursor to the sciences of psychoanalysis and psychometrics, and schools as noted as Yale offered studies in the subject area.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Poem: "Blackberry Whitman"

Blackberry Whitman
©2008/2010 mykl g. sivak

I download your poem
democratically and
your words imbue my
electronic device,

You made poetry open-source
like the language of America,
or the way your Secular Saints
claimed this nation and its order
must be open source.

What is the source of Electronic Whitman?
What are your magnetic electron poems?
Do they fill the expandable memories
of America’s devices?

Have your words made their secret
way into the hands of the many?
Or are they avoided still by your masses
who seek instead the inane distraction
of vapid pop-culture-america-2010?

Will electronic democracy
prove your undoing?
Will the open-source experiment
erase your life’s words
like a reboot?

Or will you slumber still?
Hidden on drives of one-million
out-sourced servers—

In Indonesia, UAE, Dubai,
Taipei, or in some New America—
in Africa of elsewhere—
where a hungry populace
can drink your words
like the blackest, sweetest juice

beneath an equatorial sun,
in deserts and savannas,
on black market smartphones,
nomads will find you
and read your words,

reinterpret them, chop and translate,
redistribute, and mutilate.

Electronic inbox lights will blink
at receiving you, and some
men and women will see
that your America is not a place—

that America is not itself—

that the experimental wiki
of democratic inclusion
can mean whatever they want—
if what they want is good.