Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Global Whitman

I write this blog under the titular guide "Body Electric," and it is to the work of Walt Whitman that I am drawn as I compose this post. Where Whitman looked to the people of a new and becoming nation, I am thinking today of those most needy among us as a global community. Nicholas Kristof (NYTimes) draws my attention to the gathering of world leaders this week at the United Nations as he writes in sharp critique of the "disgraceful job" they are doing to assist the poor and feed the hungry. He reminds us that 500 of the world's richest individuals command more wealth among them than 416 million of the world's poorest people. A global commitment of $7 billion annually for the next decade (the U.S. alone is currently spending $4.7 a month to support the war in Iraq) would provide 2.6 billion people with clean drinking water and save 4,000 lives a day. Europeans spend more on perfume and Americans more on cosmetic surgery each year.

  • AIDS is killing more people worldwide right now than did the Black Plague of the 14th century.
  • The United States, Italy, and Japan top the list for stinginess – less than 16 cents assistance given for every $100 of national income.
  • India and China are leaving their poor behind as the richest among them move into the 21st century: In India girls ages 1 to 5 are 50% more likely to die than boys, while interior China loses more than 700,000 children each year to the ravages of poverty.
  • Loss at the hands of African leaders can rival brutalities suffered under white rule.

And all the while, the gathering leaders of nations toast themselves, issue reports of improvement, and preen as they boast how much they are doing to help the world’s poor. Whitman put himself between the masters and the slaves to speak against human injustices; he took up a middle ground from which to call for an other way of becoming a nation. The spirit of Walt Whitman cries out again and still for a revaluation of the body electric:

I Sing the Body Electric” (lines 1-32)


I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?


The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.

The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,

It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.

The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards,
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats, the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child, the farmer's daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sun-down after work,
The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance,
The upper-hold and under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes;
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,
The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv'd neck and the counting;
Such-like I love -- I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother's breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.

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Sentinel 47 said...

Great global, all-encompassing view. Sorry it sounds so dismal, but it has the ring of truth to my ears.

You'll find this interesting and perhaps annoying, but I see many parallels betweem Whitman's text and some of Paul's writings in his letters about being one with the people. I don't much care for Paul's stuff, but I think the comparison is noteworthy!

I enjoyed that you actually included the text of the poem in your post. Thanks!

Junebugg said...

" He reminds us that 500 of the world's richest individuals command more wealth among them than 416 million of the world's poorest people"

Dang, I've never seen the numbers. I knew it in my heart, but seeing it in print really brings it home. Too bad it takes something like Katrina hitting New Orleans to make people open up and help one another.