DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Body Electric: Walt Whitman

Filed under: Homage: Writers,Poetry — Tags: , , , , , , — fred @ 14:49
Walt Whitman, 1854, photo attributed to Gabriel Harrison

Walt Whitman, 1854, photo attributed to Gabriel Harrison

Walt Whitman was born into the working class, and had to toil and struggle throughout his life.  During the dark and bloody years of the American Civil War he served as a nurse to wounded soldiers.  His poetry and his political activities got him fired from jobs on several occasions.  In spite of it all, the primary tone of his poetic voice is ecstatic.  His vision was so clear that he persisted throughout his life expanding and revising what he saw as his single work, his great epic of embodied spirit, Leaves of Grass.

For Walt, all people and all things are equal because all are expressions of the divine, and the direct experience of the divine is the experience of embracing the wild and messy physical world.  His “Song of Myself” is not far from the Buddhist idea of “no self”, because by “myself” he means the experience of his senses, which is a universe complete, its grandeur expressed in its commonest parts:

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 dropt,
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

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,
Kanuck, 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.

(From “Song of Myself”)

Here is the last section of “I Sing the Body Electric”, a fragment of  Leaves of Grass.  It’s a Whitman’s sampler of body parts and vital functions ecstatically regarded.  I’ve interspersed a few of my sketches, not as illustrations of these words, but as love-offerings to Walt.  If they distract you from the endless skipping-stone of the poet’s cadence, or if you want to savor the full poem, click here.

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and
women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of
the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and
that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s,
father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,

Poleman, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Poleman, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or
sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the
ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger,
finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round,
man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;

Push, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Push, 2009, by Fred Hatt

All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your
body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping,
love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked
meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward
toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the
marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;

Look Ahead, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Look Ahead, 2009, by Fred Hatt

O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

Walt Whitman’s full-bodied embrace of life, of Nature, of humanity, has become rare in the arts of our era.  Our culture fears this raw openness, and chooses to sheild it behind layers of cynicism or sentimentality.  But Walt’s light still shines.

I’ll close with a set of artist’s reference photographs taken by the great American painter and teacher Thomas Eakins.  Scholars believe the model for these pictures may be Walt Whitman.

Old man, seven photographs, c. 1885, photo by Thomas Eakins

Old man, seven photographs, c. 1885, photo by Thomas Eakins

The drawings in this post are 70 cm x 50 cm, aquarelle crayon on paper.  Photographs are from the Walt Whitman Archive.

Powered by WordPress

Theme Tweaker by Unreal