Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was one of the very few books I took with me on my first year abroad as a high schooler in Switzerland, and a small poem about a solitary spider, buried deep in the middle of the volume, spoke powerfully, and still speaks, to my isolated, introverted heart.
Today is the bicentennial birthday of Walt Whitman, iconic Brooklyn poet, and the local NPR affiliate and the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries have been celebrating and dissecting his legacy. I am aware, in the understatement of a century, that Whitman is a controversial figure, a working man’s poet notorious for his racism, an openly gay poet whose greatest love was a Confederate soldier.
Yet, for me, he is also always shaggy, soulful-eyed “Uncle Walt,” whose “barbaric yawp” in the hands of the inimitable Robin Williams inspired a generation of teenagers to the transformative, even dangerous power of poetry. I have turned to his leaves again and again for solace, and to his “Noiseless Patient Spider” for both comfort and inspiration.
Before the spider, though, there’s another story, one I’ve told my ESL and Arabic students a hundred times. It’s 1998, I’m 17 years old, and I’ve been in Switzerland about a month when my host mother confronts me at the front door after school. “Why aren’t you out drinking beer with your classmates?”
“Because Rotary said we can’t drink…” I stutter, “… and because … they didn’t invite me…?”
“Forget Rotary,” she scoffed, “and sit down.” With one imperiously pointed finger, she directed me inside and into a chair at the kitchen table. “Here’s your problem,” she declared, arms akimbo, staring me down from where she stood at the end of the table. “You, Maryah, are so afraid of making a mistake that you never even open your mouth to speak, and you miss out on all your chances. You have to speak and make mistakes or you’ll never be invited for beer with your classmates.”
And she was right. “It’s become my mantra,” I tell my students, “in all the years and all the languages I’ve studied, and it’s key to your success in language learning.” It’s the scariest thing in the world, for me as a writer, a linguist, sometimes a perfectionist and always an introvert:
It was after that scolding from my host mother that I discovered, tucked away in Leaves of Grass, the short poem portrait of the“Noiseless Patient Spider.”
It’s not in every version of Leaves of Grass. Famously, Whitman re-edited and re-published his “slim tome” again and again throughout his lifetime, adding and removing entire poems, reshaping others. Sometimes the “Noiseless Patient Spider” made the cut; sometimes it didn’t. But like all deep cuts, the Internet never forgets the “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,Walt Whitman, sometimes found in Leaves of Grass
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.
When the literature teacher at Freigymer, my Swiss school, asked each of us to do a presentation on a poem that had personal significance to us, this was the obvious choice.
I think I translated it into German, mostly as a personal challenge because my classmates’ English was easily up to the task of interpreting the original. And I prepared 4×6 notecards for a short little speech about how the spider was me, alone on a little American promontory in Bern, flinging filament, filament into the Swiss void in hopes that a few would stick, the ductile anchor hold….
I don’t remember how my little presentation was received by my classmates, though I remember the sympathetic eyes of the tall, lanky literature teacher. Most of all, I remember the terror of unreeling, venturing, throwing this deeply personal, deeply vulnerable interpretation into the vacant, vast surrounding….
It feels melodramatic now, but I still viscerally feel in the depths of my ceaselessly musing soul exactly how terrifying it was to stand there on that early spring afternoon. And I love Uncle Walt for giving me that feeling, the courage to face that vulnerability.