Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855 with 12 poems in it. He wrote, rewrote, and expanded it. Edition by edition. In the 1892 “deathbed” version, there are 400 entries.
Four. Hundred. Entries.
And Whitman evolved alongside his work, as evidenced by the updates. Each new edition came with new perspectives and reflections. All with his new awareness of form (that made critics both love and hate him).
Whitman figured out how to make a personal archive long before modern tools. I’m as fascinated by the poems as I am by the idea of them as a collection. How a life’s work can be represented and representative, like leaves of grass – seasonal and immortal, all at once.
The quote, “I sing the body electric” is evocative. Whitman used it to celebrate the miracle of life. The miracle of being alive. And he wasn’t shy about holding it in contrast to being dead. The editions mark how his emphasis shifted with life as he lived it, from ego-fueled youthfulness, to melancholic middle-ager, to pondering the meaning of immortality at the end of life.
I’ve been making this joke for years: “I sing the body electric relaxation.” It was always just an amusing juxtaposition to me. I never wrote it down and I never forgot it. Holding “two almost matches” up to each other is fun even when it’s not funny. An 1800s poet and a late 1900s rap song – cute.
But I noticed something last week after a conversation with a friend. These two sources are not the same, but they are about the same thing. There’s a thread connecting the truth between what a personal archive is and what a personal archive does here too:
A personal archive is seasonal and immortal all at once.
That’s the goal at least.
Or it should be.
A Tribe Called Quest’s song, “Electric Relaxation” may not look like Whitman-level poetry at first glance, but drill in with me.
Whitman had leaves of grass, Tribe was a collective of individual personalities.
Both balanced experienced sensuality with felt memories and future expectations. The “electric” in each is a call to a spark – it’s a charge. Whitman’s experiences he’s calling from aren’t that different from the layers of lyrics and samples (!) Tribe’s collaging together either.
Most of all – they each broke forms. Many critics hated Whitman for his every-man, free-verse, no-rule “poetry.” Tribe were part of hip-hop when rap was still questioned as a passing fad, but in songs like this, where they juxtaposed a 3-bar loop against the prevailing musical formats, the musicality is critically undeniable.
Whitman and Tribe both can inform our personal archiving process too.
They remind us to receive – to experience life and feel the electricity running through us.
They remind us to reflect – to measure our emotions, feel, and physically react to life.
They remind us to record – to capture our reactions to our reflections at whatever level we express them.
Whitman went from 12 entries to 400 in 37ish years, breaking all the style rules, and then filed them under the same title. A Tribe Called Quest embraced sampling content, re-arranging it, and adding their own reflections to make new works of art. The influences of both are everywhere.
I sing the body electric. I sing the body electric relaxation. I sing.
We all sing.
Receive, reflect, and record it. Only you can write your personal archive. The only rules are to start and embrace the process.
If you don’t know where or how to start, drop me a line.