06 September 2023

Whitman, Neruda and truths that wait in all things

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the 216th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]        

I believe it was in the early part of 1986 that Professor Ashely Halpe decided to deliver his lecture to first year students at Dumbara Campus in the pleasant surroundings of the British Council, Kandy. He concluded a couple of hours later that pretty places are a distraction. That was the end of that experiment.

He was probably correct. All I remember from that lecture is a reference to the great poet of the United States of America and this planet, Walt Whitman. Prof, as he was fondly referred to, spoke about Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass,’ the fact that Whitman himself had written anonymous reviews of the book for New York papers. He also referred to ‘Song of Myself,’ in which, among other things, he described himself. ‘Without leaving out any body parts,’ he said with his characteristic chuckle.

Prof had to talk about all kinds of poets, Whitman being just one. Whitman resurfaced years later when I became enamoured with the poetry of Pablo Neruda who referred to him many times in his poetry and in speeches.

He titled an address to the New York PEN Club ‘I come to renegotiate my debt to Walt Whitman,’ which the New York Times mis-translated as ‘We live in a Whitmanesque Age.’ Neruda himself would allow his ideological predilections and outcome preferences to ink his own translations of Whitman, but that’s a different story.

During that address, Neruda stated that he was Whitman’s humble servant and described him as ‘a poet who strode the earth with long, slow paces, pausing everywhere to love, to examine, to learn, to teach and to admire.’

Neruda directly details the quantum of the debt owed in ‘Ode to Walt Whitman.’ He claims ‘[he] does not remember at what age nor where: in the great damp South or on the fearsome coast, beneath the brief cry of the seagulls [when he] touched a hand and [discovered] it was the hand of Walt Whitman.’ Thereafter he had ‘trod the ground with bare feet, he had walked on the grass, on the firm dew of Walt Whitman,’ and during his entire youth, he acknowledges, he ‘had the company of that hand, that dew, its firmness of patriarchal pine, its prairie-like expanse, and its mission of circulatory peace.’

There have been many academic papers written on the ways in which Whitman’s poetry inspired Neruda. There are probably quite a few doctoral dissertations too.  I am no student of literature but I enjoy poetry enough to want to read them all. This I realised today when I finally got hold of a copy of ‘Leaves of Grass’ from ‘Half Price Books’ in Naperville, Illinois thanks to the generosity of my friend Nandana Perera.

I may have flipped through the book in one of the many libraries I’ve visited over the years, but I cannot remember. Naturally, I went to ‘Song of Myself’ and as naturally tarried awhile at the grass references. I will share just two. The first is at the beginning of the 6th section:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

And, in the 31st section, Whitman states, ‘I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.’

In that one line I feel Whitman has said it all. In that one line I feel Whitman stamped the signature of his belief system. Whitman embraced the universe. He detailed it. He recognized, acknowledged and expressed his intimate relationship with these details. Neruda probably was persuaded to note the sense of enormity as well as constituent parts of the world around him when he read and reread Whitman, but would transliterate space and particles using people, political economy and history with bold, easy and unbelievably apt use of metaphor.

A blade of grass is as nondescript, ‘boring’ and inconsequential as one can imagine. Whitman sees a swirl of life in that modest edge. Neruda, perhaps, mastered metaphor when he read Whitman. And today, almost fifty years after Neruda abdicated all modesty which could as well as be immodesty and 131 years after the ‘deathbed’ edition of Leaves of Grass was published (the slim first edition of 12 poems expanded to almost 400 at the end of Whitman’s life, each a distinct book, according to him), I turn the leaves of partial biographies of two great grandfathers of poetry, remembering a teacher and a friend, Prof Ashley Halpe in awe at not only on connectivity but the collapse of centuries and volumes of life and philosophy into a single line of poetry. Or a blade of grass:

To me the converging objects of the universe partially flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means
. [Section 20]


All truths wait in all things. [Section 30]

The hair on the earth's pate are stories. I am ready to read. 


Other articles in this series: 

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road