Friday, February 4, 2011

What is grass?

I have never been a particularly artistic person; perhaps that’s why I’m studying mechanical engineering. Once, when I was younger, I painted what was most likely the single most life-like image of a choo-choo train ever. It was so good; in fact, that my mother displayed it in our kitchen and my younger brother slowly sabotaged it over a period of days. I think this is why I hated my brother and why I never perused a future in art. Thankfully, something like this never happened to Walt Whitman. His book “Song of Myself” is a collection of poems about himself. I believe that Whitman’s form of poetry conflicts with what Herbert Marcuse believes art should be in his book “One-Dimensional Man.”

One of the most interesting poems in Whitman’s book is in section 6 on page 4. It begins “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.”

Whitman then begins to discuss not only what grass is, but what life is. He calls grass “the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and rememberancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose?” This could be interpreted as Whitman saying that grass is the work of God, and that it covers the Earth so that we may gaze upon it and as ourselves where it came from and who put it there.

Whitman continues to make more observations about grass. He states that it is hieroglyphic and that it grows everywhere and among everyone. I believe that Whitman is trying to say that the grass had hidden messages for us and that he admires it because it does not discriminate.

Later, Whitman compares the life cycle of grass to the life cycle of humans. He says “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 lead forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and cease the moment life appeared. All goes onward and outward… and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

This passage reminds me of the song “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. What Whitman is saying is that death is not necessarily the end; in fact, it’s necessary for the continuation of life, just like how dead grass fertilizes new grass seeds. It’s interesting how Whitman says that dying is different and luckier than what any one has supposed. I think that this gives insight to Whitman’s religious views. Although he wasn’t involved in any particular form of organized religion, he did believe in God and I believe that this passage shows that he must have believed in some form of afterlife as well.

Of course, the question begs to be asked; what would Herbert Marcuse think about Whitman’s poetry? Chapter three of Marcuse’s book portrays Marcuse’s views about the roles of art and high culture. He illustrates that art has gone through a change with the institution of one-dimensional realities. This is because art used to depict characters that went against the society and were fighting for their own rights. Those same characters are now going along with what society is doing, and supporting what is believed to be normal. Marcuse believes that it is necessary for art to return to its old ways of challenging the social norm instead of illustrating propaganda in order to give more of a voice to the people.

Although Whitman does occasionally mention topics such as slavery and women’s rights, generally speaking, Walt Whitman’s poetry isn’t very critical of society. For the most part his poetry praises America for being so diverse. I don’t think that Marcuse would have approved of Whitman’s poetry.

Personally, I would have to disagree with Marcuse’s view of what art should be. I don’t believe that art should be critical of society just for the sake of being critical of society. Art should be inspirational. Walt Whitman was inspired by America and its diversity, so he wrote a bunch of poems about it. They were good poems because of the way that he was inspired to write them, just like my painting of a choo-choo train was good because I was inspired by choo-choo trains.


  1. I liked your comparison to The Circle of Life, because sometimes poetry is hard to explain, and this made your understanding of the section very clear. I was having a hard time understanding that passage and you explained it and applied it to Whitman in an easy to understand way.

    On the other hand, at first I wasn't able to understand the connection between the Circle of Life philosophy, Whitman's belief in god and Marcuse's opinion about Whitman's writing. I didn't get the relationship between Whitman’s appraisal of death and Marcuse’s call for characters fighting for their own rights. I think you’re trying to show that Whitman’s lack of use of characters in this section at all which is even worse than having characters who don’t stand up for their own rights, at least according to Marcuse. I think if you made that argument a little clearer in the second to last paragraph it would have been stronger.

    Overall, I think it’s a really interesting argument that started off really well, but needed a little clarification at the end. But I would definitely want to read more about this subject!

  2. Here's a conceptual question for you, regarding what I thought was the most interesting moment in the essay. You argue that art should not be critical, but inspirational. Why do you think those are antonyms? Marcuse certainly thinks that art should inspire us to imagine a different world and a different way of living - for him, criticizing how we are now, and inspiring us to reach for something new, are united, not apart.

    Similarly - yes, Whitman does celebrate America, in particular its diversity. But he is vastly more critical than you give him credit for. His discussion of slavery is far harsher than you give him credit for, and his unification of opposites (president and prostitute, etc.) is harshly critical as well.

    That doesn't mean that you're wrong to see him as loving America. But again - inspiration and criticisms don't need to be different things.

    There's a structural problem here, relating to that conceptual issue. You unpack some of the early material about grass, and you do a decent job of it. But what does that have to do with Marcuse? Absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Your job was to analyze a passage *in order* to explore connections between the two - applying Marcuse to Whitman should be part of the analysis of the passage, not a separate thing. In other words, if you think Marcuse would disapprove of Whitman, showing why he would *in this passage* would have been the way to do it.

    What does the choo-choo train accomplish? I'm not opposed to childhood stories as openings, but this seemed like pure filler - again, distracting you from actually applying Marcuse to Whitman, or vice versa.

    Also, as an aside - your discussion of Whitman and God doesn't acknowledge any of the related material we discussed in class. Saying "Whitman believes in God" is neither true or false, until you clarify what you mean by "God" - he does *not* believe in Jehovah (his name for the Christian God), but he does believe in *a* concept of divinity. If Whitman's belief or lack of belief in God was important for your argument, you need to get the details right. If it wasn't important, it could have been cut.