Maturity vs. Poetry

Having opened Goethe again after 20 years and discovering a new and better reader (me) I decided to take a look at Walt Whitman, another poet who, at a different point in my life, had a big effect on me. I don’t have a collection of his poetry any more so I had to “google. The two poems I had in mind came from a section of Leaves of Grass that Whitman titled “Calamus.”

Back in the day, I never asked “what is calamus?” I don’t know why. I guess at that point (late 20s) I was more enchanted than curious. But after reading the two poems I loved most back in the day, I was curious, because the poems no longer have any resonance for me.

Pretty interesting plant with medicinal properties and oblique Bible references, especially in the Song of Solomon.

Whitman’s poems are not very subtle and as I read them over a couple of times I wondered what that young woman thought she saw in them. I remembered one particular moment involving a champagne laden oral reading in my kitchen the night Reagan was inaugurated. No, we weren’t celebrating that; there was a party at my house of people who’d worked to elect an independent candidate, John Anderson, and they were all in the living room watching Bedtime for Bonzo. My friends and I were in the kitchen being deep and complicated.

Now I wonder why I made my friends listen to this, but I did.

I’m not the one to criticize Whitman (but you are doing just that, Martha!) but the two poems that enchanted me so much? One is obviously about male homosexual yearning and the other is about vita brevis est; ars longas or however that is correctly spelled and how Whitman’s words (leaves of grass) would live long after he had died.

Interestingly, back in my 20s, I ignored the simple grammar in Whitman’s poem, “Scented Herbage of My Breast,” and decided that “you” referred to art/poetry when it clearly refers to death.

…Give me your tone therefore O death, that I may accord with it,
Give me yourself, for I see that you belong to me now above all,
and are folded inseparably together, you love and death are,
Nor will I allow you to balk me any more with what I was calling life,
For now it is convey’d to me that you are the purports essential,
That you hide in these shifting forms of life, for reasons, and that 
they are mainly for you,
That you beyond them come forth to remain, the real reality,
That behind the mask of materials you patiently wait, no matter 
how long,That you will one day perhaps take control of all,
That you will perhaps dissipate this entire show of appearance,
That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very 
But you will last very long.

Naturally a lot has happened in my life since my late 20s, among those “events” was a kind of awakening in my early 40s resulting from the question, “What’s real, anyway?” (Don’t ask that!!!) For a while I was content seeing what I wanted to see and then, a titanic turning point, and afterwards I wanted to see what was really there.

And so, Calamus.

Calamus is a plant. The root (rhizome) is used to make medicine.

Despite safety concerns, calamus is used for gastrointestinal (GI) problems including ulcers, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), intestinal gas(flatulence), upset stomach and loss of appetite (anorexia). Calamus is also used as a calming medicine (sedative), to induce sweating, and to treat rheumatoid arthritis and stroke.

Some people chew calamus to remove the smell of tobacco, as a stimulant, to increase their sense of well-being, and as a hallucinogen.

Some people apply calamus directly to the skin to treat certain skin diseases.

In foods, calamus is used as a spice.

I have NO idea if Whitman knew about the medicinal uses of this grass, but he certainly knew what it looked like. I had to laugh when I saw the photo.

Whitman left the world some “leaves” I will also always be grateful for and to which I turn in my mind. One of them is:

A Noiseless Patient Spider


A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

27 thoughts on “Maturity vs. Poetry

        • I looked at the book! It’s a bit dense for me at this light-hearted point of my life, but reading a ways into it, I immediately had images of Mime from Wagner’s Siegfried, toiling away with his ores, trying to forge a sword that Siegfried wouldn’t break. Not all that relevant except as an image… There was a deep fascination with all these mysterious things in the 18th century and Goethe loved those mines at Ilmenau. Goethe’s curiosity and questions about reality in the most concrete sense are why I love him so much.

          • Well put! It IS a bit deep, every sentence is FULL, and it meanders as much as my son’s beloved paths, but he just got full tenure (before the age of 40! proud mom moment) and is working on a second book which I assume will be as intense as this one. His brain is on another level for me, and I helped just a bit by proofing his dissertation as you can’t have too many eyes reading it. More importantly for me, he’s a great dad and loves to garden haha!

            • I really liked what I read, though I did resist (a little) the over-arching term “Romantic” but since I haven’t read the book I just put that down to some idiot prejudice of mine, which it is. I’ve struggled hard to reach this level of superficiality and I’m not giving it up now. Most of all, congratulations on raising such an amazing son. I’ve loved learning about him. I “met” Goethe in Italian Journey. As soon as I opened it I found a person who was, as a writer, at least (but I believe also as a person) kind of a kindred spirit, out there looking for what I was (reality) and unwilling to be hemmed in by his reputation or any specialization. My very very favorite work is Conversations with Eckermann where his secretary (Eckermann) has transcribed his life working with and for Goethe in Goethe’s later years. Anyway, I wrote about it here


  1. I love the examination of the changing perspective. My husband worked for the Anderson campaign as well but that was before we married! I should have known he had GOP tendencies…

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