Poetry

Whitman and the Breath of the Line

By John Diamond, M.D.

Verse: from the Latin vertere, to turn.

Many poets – Wordsworth and Whitman come immediately to mind – are great poets, but poor versifiers: they didn’t know when to turn the line.

The basic reason for this is that they had a Lung 10 problem: not being at peace with their breathing. And this is then transmitted through to us. So that we love what they say, but, deep down, cannot love them, as they threaten our breathing, our lives!

I have found, time and time again, that the cause of the Lung 10 problem is the feeling that they are the victims of another’s Gall Bladder 40 sadistic attack. This trauma is then passed on to us, unwittingly, in their poetry. And their music. Think of the sadistic conductor (not uncommon!) threatening the orchestra members with his stick. Their breathing is jammed (as, of course, is his) – and this is then inflicted on the audience. Monitor your breathing when you’re next at a concert.

If, as I maintain the basic purpose of all artistic endeavor is to raise the Life Energy of the recipient, then it is absolutely essential that the artist is breathing easily, naturally, peacefully. And, tragically, this is not the usual situation.

Particularly tragic because one of the very best therapies is mutual breathing: the healer breathing easily and naturally, like that and encouraging the sufferer to breathe with him, as one with him: breath with breath, soul with soul.

Let’s now consider Walt Whitman. Much as I love his poetry, I do not feel loved by it because it restricts my free, peaceful breathing. To reveal his real genius, we need to re-versify him so as to, as it were, free up his breathing. And therefore ours as well. Then he is manifesting his highest therapeutic potential.

So, at the risk of being accused of blasphemy, even heresy, here are some examples from the first edition of Song of Myself. In every case, although you may object on principle, you will find, if you are perceptive, that your breathing has relaxed, that you have been Energized – as was Whitman’s basic Intention.

Note: I have also changed the punctuation, for it, too, is an aid to relaxed breathing. That is its very purpose.
Clear and sweet is my soul . . . and clear and sweet is all
that is not my soul.

Clear and sweet
is my soul,
and clear and sweet
is all that is not
my soul.
The boatmen and clamdiggers arose early and stopped for me,
I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a
good time.
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-
kettle.

The boatmen and clamdiggers
arose early
and stopped for me.
I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots
and went and had a good time.
You should have been with us that day
round the chowder-kettle.
I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.

I am the poet
of the body,
and I am the poet
of the soul.

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away
flies with my hand.

The little one
sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze
and look a long time,
and silently
brush away flies
with my hand.

You are also asking me questions, and I hear you;
I answer that I cannot answer . . . you must find out for
yourself.

You are also asking me
questions,
and I hear you.
I answer
that I cannot answer –
you must find out
for yourself.

You may object to these alterations, but they cannot be thought of as bastardizations if your Life Energy has now been Enhanced. For this, I’m sure, was Whitman’s basic Intention. All I’ve done is help him with his Lung 10 problem, as I would have had I ever had the honor to know him and to have worked with him. As had that great psychiatrist (“alienist” in those days) and humanitarian, Dr. R.M. Bucke.

Out of Bucke’s reading of Whitman’s poetry (before he ever met him personally), Bucke experienced what he termed Cosmic Consciousness which forever changed his life.

Bucke, in his own way, knew how to breathe with and for Whitman.

I hope that my suggestions, inadequate as they are, may help you to Know Whitman’s soul, as did Bucke. For in his writing is his soul, right there in every line – just waiting to be Known.

No one more than Whitman wrote from soul to soul. We just need some help with his breathing to be one with him.