The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem
A lyrical serenade to a world we barely dare imagine and to our kinship with those creatures most different from us.
By Maria Popova
“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) offered in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the original the preface to Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). This sense of kinship with and radiant respect for every element of the universe is what rendered Whitman the poet laureate of goodwill toward one and all, human and hummingbird and humpback whale. It is also what made him an indispensable part of The Universe in Verse and its animating ethos of celebrating the science and wonder of nature through poetry.
I dedicated the 2018 Universe in Verse to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who thought and wrote about science and the natural world like a poet. Her career as a catalyst of the environmental movement began with her lyrical 1937 essay Undersea, which extended an unprecedented invitation to the human reader to consider the reality of life on our Pale Blue Dot from the perspective of marine creatures — creatures as unimaginably different from us as creatures can be.
Nothing like it had been done before in science — but something astonishingly kindred had been done a century earlier, in poetry.
Leaves of Grass contains a short, exquisite piece titled “The World Below the Brine,” which may well be Whitman’s least known published poem — in large part because before Carson rendered the marine world not only comprehensible but full of wonder to the human mind, it was so incomprehensible as to be almost alien, and one of our elemental human foibles is that we tend to scorn what we do not understand. And so Whitman’s stunning poem went underappreciated and practically unnoticed.
At The Universe in Verse, I enlisted the help of actor, writer, director, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell to change this. Prefacing his reading of this overlooked Whitman gem, Mitchell used my rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass to perform one of his “Whitman divinations” — existential questions flung across space and time at Whitman, answered by opening to a random page and imbibing the often surprisingly relevant wisdom found therein.
When Mitchell called out to the audience for one such question, poet Marie Howe offered: “How do we live brokenhearted?”
In this recording from the show, Whitman’s heart-stopping answer across the centuries appears before Mitchell’s charming reading of “The World Below the Brine.” Streaming behind him is artist Eric Corriel’s lovely site-specific video installation Water Will Be Here — a subtle, arresting reminder that unless we tend to our fragile planet far more conscientiously than we have been, the whole of it will sink below the brine as sea levels rise.
THE WORLD BELOW THE BRINE
by Walt Whitman
The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as
so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.
Complement with English artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare and sensual 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass, then revisit Whitman on the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, his most direct reflection on happiness, and his life-advice to the young.
Published May 29, 2018