Whitman Versus the Astronomer

Just for shits and grins you ought to listen to the coma patient they employed to recite the poem that you should probably already know is the subject of this article:


I’m not going to get too deep in the weeds about poetic recitation, but seriously, who wants to go to a performance where the main speaker is deliberately trying to purge all emotional expression from their voice? Oh, and then listen to them for sixty minutes doing that kind of shit? At least the slam poets are allowed to have feelings on stage.

So, here’s my version. I should say it’s not that great:

It’s not a super dramatic poem, and I’m not trying to ape the Ancient Mariner here. But a little something something is called for. Especially with Whitman, who came online well before the firmware update turned all the spoken verse from flesh into wood.

I could see how a person might say that they don’t really want to hear the ways I’m deviating from some hypothetical, pure textual offering. And fine. If you think the verbal expression of poems is best served by engaging in a simulated lobotomy of human speech, then you’ll love modern academic poetry readings.

You might instead say, “dwietzsche, I just don’t like the way you do it.” Very good. I invite you to do better! If you’ve got a webcam and an internet connection you can go to Soundcloud or wherever you like and crank out your own version. No one owns Whitman, and what better tribute to him than a thousand different readings of the same poem? Especially by anyone with vocal talent, which is a real thing that really exists and that real poets should really care about.  You might want to pick something a little punchier than old man Learn’d though. If you’ve got the stamina, how about Crossing Brooklyn Ferry?

Anyway, on to the actual looking at the poem part:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I don’t know how frequently we see this idea in poetry, but it’s probably not too rare. Wordsworth has a version of this poem, more arboreal than celestial, but trucks in this same kind of sentiment, resisting bookish, academic involvement in the world, in favor of just gawking at it. And the gawking of course is not some plain ordinary eye-pointing. We’re supposed to buy the idea that the poet is engaged in a form of communion with trees or stars or what have you and invited to accept the opposition that is supposed between the abstractions of the intellect and lived experience.

XKCD has a perfectly serviceable reply to this anti-intellectual line of attack:

My initial dissatisfaction with the tendency of poets to engage in this sort of thing is rooted in large part by my dissatisfaction with the idea that poets have a different relationship with knowledge or experience generally from scientists or professors or whatever. “Let’s go look at some trees” is just a weak sauce position to take, especially if the opposite of this position is the one that gets you things like microwave ovens and hovercrafts and shit like that. It’s not like scientists can’t also go look at fucking trees whenever they feel like it too. No one’s got a monopoly on mysticism.

It’s taken quite a bit of fiddling to come around to this poem. To explain it, I have to begin at the end of the world:


You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. Long story short, human cyborg Stephen Hawking and a bunch of other science types are afraid of Skynet, or some version of Skynet, the nature of which we have not been apprised, but which may or may not involve a race of computational superbeings who decide to reward their creators for bringing them into existence with some combination of slavery/extinction/batteryification.

Dwietzsche doesn’t think you should worry about the coming AI apocalypse. But I can see you saying, “why should I listen to you when there’s a perfectly serviceable Stephen Hawking who is, after all, a really smart guy?” And it’s precisely this question that has made me reconsider my objections to this poem.

You should listen to me, and not Stephen Hawking, because Stephen Hawking doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. You know who *might* know what the hell is going on in a world where nerds cower at the idea of their imaginary synthetic intellectual superiors? A whip smart motherfucking poet might know something about that kind of shit. Telling bullshit stories about how the world is going to end is our job. Which is why we would know the difference between a plausible existential threat to the human race and a made up bullshit one in the first place. This one is clearly bullshit.

I can’t rule out that one about global warming, unfortunately. Learn to swim and all that. But this thing with AI isn’t just about being in a position to call a spade a spade. It’s about how the quantifiers have usurped the mythopoetic from the versifiers in some demonic long game started by the Pythagoreans three millennia ago.

There are good, if somewhat sublimated, reasons why Wordsworth tells us to actually shut our books in “The Tables Turned,” and Whitman, who was by all accounts an astronomy buff who was totally into the new science, depicts himself walking away from the spreadsheet approach to cosmology in favor of… some other undocumentable kind of thing. And the reason is that it is the coming of the book itself that presages the end of poesy as an authoritative discipline in the first place.

That’s a tangent that could go on forever, but there are books that already exist you can read. Try some Ong if you haven’t visited these waters:


For my purposes, it is enough here to simply note that poets used to own the joint. Homer was the overstuffed pinata of Ancient Greek lore, and his stories did a lot of work-historical, political, geographical, metaphysical. The Greek collective consciousness was held together explicitly in the telling of a set of tales that could be accumulated inside a single head. Not a great system, but it had its advantages.

And then writing happened, and that was the beginning of a vast reordering of the way we do the kind of business Homer was up to. New disciplines branched up and out of older traditions. Philosophy and poetry separated, and then philosophy broke off into theology and natural philosophy, and then the Enlightenment happened and natural philosophy exploded into a thousand different pieces.

That poetry could credibly have been understood to be the ur discipline has been forgotten, most importantly by the poets, who mainly have cooperated with the systematic dismantling of their formal cultural authority and have gone so far as to conveniently shelve themselves alongside the painters, the most feckless and insignificant of all the artisans. While libraries have grown, the amount of shelf space devoted to the poets has not. And a part of the reason for that is because poets aren’t doing their fucking jobs anymore.

This criticism cannot fairly be applied to Whitman, who recognized his responsibilities as the American Homer. And if I were to pull something I thought was admirable out of Whitman that I don’t think anyone has the balls to do anymore, it was his efforts to create, through poetry, an architectonic image that unites the celestial and the mundane. And his engagement with the metaphysical was an outgrowth of his own participation in the science of his day. He was not just vomiting out some neoclassical bullshit to give aristocrats warm fuzzies about themselves.

If you were to look for any kind of examples of this in the modern day, what you get is Neil DeGrasse Tyson/Joni Mitchell talking about how we’re made of starshit, and that’s about as good as it gets. We can’t blame Neil for taking some off the shelf mysticism, since he’s not a poet, he’s an astrophysicist. The epistemological commitments of scientists are in direct opposition to the mythopoetic. But seriously, there should be more stuff available to him in stock than a line ripped from “Woodstock.”

In the absence of a credible effort to do this work, we’re stuck with an eruption of metaphysical wankery straight out of the heads of theoretical physicists, who are no mean bullshitters within the limits of their own slender intellectual tranche. I would even go so far as to induct the kind of people who worry about multiverse theory into the Order of Poesy, if it were in my authority to do so. But the popularization of their ideas, where we get, for instance, the “God Particle,” or the elevation to oracle status of a guy soldered into a wheelchair whose main scientific accomplishments, though impressive, are also completely unsubstantiable mathematical treatments of nearly unobservable objects, and of  course the aforementioned trembling at the prospect our mechanized Brainiac overlords, are just hokum that serves them and their idealized versions of themselves. The rest of us are invited to elevate a tiny, almost scientifically irrelevant subset of elite physicists to the status of deityhood. I think we should refuse their invitation.

And this is where my sympathy for Whitman comes in. There’s a lot that’s not stated in this poem. We don’t see Whitman simply refusing to accept that authority of the astronomer on the question of how far away the stars are. And poets, of course, should accept science within the scheme of justification that science is offered. But to the extent that the astronomer is engaged in a kind of middle man deal-the greasy haired salesman offering to be an emissary to the stars which anyone can just go out and see themselves, we should turn his offer down.

No one owns the stars, either.


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