“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
A few weeks back I left this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on the Maha’ulepu Trail on the island of Kauai. Maha’ulepu is revered not only as the last undeveloped coastline in southern Kauai, but also as a Hawaiian heritage site, with ancient burial grounds, ruins of a heiau (Hawaiian temple), and the bones of extinct species still being discovered.
The trail, 8 miles round trip, runs along limestone cliffs high above the crashing surf, dropping to empty beaches and rising up again. On one side of the trail are ancient fossils, petroglyphs, and caves, and on the other a lush golf course and mountain view. Each turn of the sandy path brings an ever more beautiful view. It was tough to decide where to leave the poem I carried in my pocket.
I first attached it to a twig and stuck it in the sand, but the day was windy and would quickly turn Whitman’s words into trash. I was not going to be the haole who left trash in a place of such archeological, historical and spiritual significance.
So I walked on. Then I remembered that further up on the trail was a hideaway spot where visitors are encouraged to leave something behind on a makeshift altar to friendship and aloha.
So there the prose poem found a home.
I’m calling this a “prose poem” but it’s actually taken from an essay that prefaces Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Leaves, our quintessential American epic, is a collection of 343 poems (originally published as twelve and re-issued and expanded throughout Whitman’s life) that are optimistic in tone, democratic in spirit, innovative in form, and bold in subject matter. Whitman was after a new and looser form of poetry, a new openness towards the body and sexuality, a new approach to race relations, and a new American religion. Still, there’s something ancient about his words. They sound as if they were etched on stone tablets. I’m no Whitman scholar, but I noticed right away how similar the first sentence of Whitman’s paragraph is to Exodus 12:11. This is the passage where God gives Moses instructions for the first Passover:
This is how you shall eat it: with your waist girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand
More to the point, the same sentence of Whitman’s has kinship with Exodus 19, the passage where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments:
This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: Exodus 19
The echo must be deliberate. The Old Testament structure is the perfect foil for the new American commandments Whitman offers. In place of ten commandments, he gives twelve. In place of Thou shalt not’s (eight of the ten, anyway), he offers You shall. His commands are all stated affirmatively. And then there’s the content, which is anti-command-following, at least anti the rules people of his time were accustomed to. Re-examine, dismiss, he says, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown. And this, my hands-down favorite: STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY. I put it in all caps because in this age of extreme division, it needs to be shouted. People of all political persuasions would do well to think, STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY, every time they encounter views opposite their own.
The covenant, too, differs sharply from the one in Exodus. The Israelites’ “reward” for following the commandments was to be called God’s chosen people. The reward for following Whitman’s is to be called a poem, a living, breathing poem. From between the lashes of your eyes to every joint in your body the flesh becomes word and not the other way around.
Because I left Whitman’s piece in Hawaii, an unlikely spot if there ever was one for the words of a native New Yorker, I can’t help but think of another set of commandments. Or to put it differently, another guide for righteous living. I’m talking about the Aloha Spirit, and it’s got nothing to do with leis and hula dancers. Hawaiians take the Aloha Spirit so seriously they even put it in their state constitution.
Even though it’s long and will stretch the length of this post past anyone’s patience, I want to print the law in whole. I leave it to others to write the dissertation on how Whitman’s philosophy relates to the A.S. law–I only suggest that although one celebrates the individual and the other a culture of collectivism, both place a high value on connection, authenticity and the spiritual aspects of life.
Full Text of THE ALOHA SPIRIT LAW
[§5-7.5] The Aloha Spirit.
(a) The Aloha Spirit is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the Self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, Aloha, the following unuhi laulâ loa (free translation) may be used:
* Akahai, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;
* Lôkahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
* Olu`olu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
* Ha`aha`a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
* Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.
These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.
* Aloha is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.
* Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.
* Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.
* Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.
(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to The Aloha Spirit. [L 1986, c 202, §1]
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, the second of nine children. His mother and his father, a carpenter, were sympathetic to Quaker thought but never actually became Quakers. The same is true of Whitman throughout his life.
The family was poor and forced to move often. When he was eleven Whitman quit school and started to work, first as an office boy in a lawyer’s office and then as an apprentice to a printer, where he stayed till he was seventeen. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse for five years, and in his early twenties became a full-time journalist and started a weekly newspaper. He worked as an editor for newspapers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Orleans. Meanwhile he was writing the poems that would form the original Leaves of Grass, which he produced and published himself in 1855. The sexual content in the book was controversial—even banned in Boston–and over the years Whitman failed to get work and lost work because of it.
During the Civil War he served as a nurse and later as a government clerk. The last eighteen years of his life he faced serious health issues but continued to work on new editions of his masterwork. He published the “deathbed” version only four months before he died at age 72 of tuberculosis.
Leaves of Grass has inspired more than mere controversy—it’s inspired writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsburg and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s been translated into every major language and continues to inspire both pop culture (Gilmore Girls, Dead Poet’s Society, Breaking Bad, Levi’s commercials,) and more highbrow pursuits (Iggy Pop’s recitation is worth listening to; here’s one by Lana del Rey, and here a nude dance interpretation), not to mention romantic ones. (Bill Clinton’s gift to Monica Lewinsky, remember?)
** If you want to read more about Leaves of Grass, link to this this piece by poet Robert Haas. Interestingly, in the excerpt from his book (scroll down when you link), Haas mentions that poet Galway Kinnell once said that Leaves of Grass is so rich in vowel sounds it might as well have been written in Hawaiian.