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Home / Articles / Columnists / Life 101 /  Walt Whitman: Poet of Enlightenment
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Wednesday, January 2,2013

Walt Whitman: Poet of Enlightenment

By Cary Bayer  
I It’s often enlightening to return to something familiar that you love that you haven’t visited in a while. I had that rare pleasure some time back, when I attended an exhibit, at the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan that commemorated a century-and-a-half of the poetry of Walt Whitman.

For those of you whose principal experience of Whitman was having to memorize “Oh Captain! My Captain!” in high school, allow me to say that the Good Gray Poet, as he was known, presents the most expanded and happiest vision of any American poet ever.

Another way to say it is that his consciousness was more evolved and spiritually developed than probably any other American man of letters.

I wrote a master’s thesis titled “Walt Whitman: Poet for an Enlightened Age,” a quarter of a century ago, when I was a graduate student and teaching assistant at Maharishi International University in the middle of Iowa, hundreds of miles from his old stomping grounds in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, where this exhibit was held.

If you didn’t realize that he’s a cosmic poet, allow me to share with you a little Whitman sampler:

Knowing the perfect fitness and
equanimity of things, while they
discuss I am silent, and go bathe
and admire myself.


“Who makes much  of a miracle?

To me every cubic inch of space
is a miracle.”


“Long enough have you dream’d
contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum
from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the
dazzle of the light and of every
moment of your life.”


“The universe is in myself—it shall
pass through me as a procession.”


“Bibles may convey and priests
expound, but it is exclusively for
the noiseless operation of one’s own
Self, to enter the pure ether of
veneration, reach the divine levels
and commune with the


“Has anyone supposed it lucky
to be born?

hasten to inform him or her it is
just as lucky to die, and I know it.”


“I am the mate and companion of
people, all just as immortal and
fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal,
but I know.”

The museum show featured, among other artifacts, a pair of boots that he used to wear. This instantly brought my mind back to his depiction of higher consciousness in the Song of Myself line, “(I) am not contain’d between my hat and boots.” I read some of his loving letters to the family of a dying Civil War soldier, whom he visited daily for months when he was a volunteer nurse. And I was reminded of his unforgettable line, also from Song of Myself: “I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.”

There was a tape of some lines from his 1888 poem, “America,” that was read a couple of years later by Whitman, himself, into Thomas Edison’s new phonograph machine. It was the first time that I actually heard the voice of the great “son of Mannahatta,” and detected the 19th century New York accent of the Long Island native, just a year before his death. This, and some lines from his epic “Song of the Open Road,” brought me back to my springtime teaching trip cross country, during which time I listened to a tape of actors reading his poetry.

There were 150-year-old references to equality for women and for the rights of homosexuals. As I looked around me at other people milling through the show, it was thrilling to see his words being read by openly gay men and women, and straight people, too. To see how close a woman (Senator Hillary Clinton) got to running as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, I realized how far ahead of his times Whitman was as an advocate of equality for women. To realize that “Don’t ask/don’t tell” has been abolished by the U.S. military so many years after Whitman wrote so eloquently of homosexual love, was wonderful.

The exhibit omitted the transcendental insights of his poetry, which I incorporated above, that are so similar to depictions of the wisdom of India. Later that night, I sat down to practice the Higher Self Healing Meditation that I teach, and my mind slipped into the transcendental Self that Whitman wrote about so eloquently. I was aware of how lucky I was to regularly glimpse the cosmic insights that he tasted and wrote about on my soil, so long ago.


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