“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self — that all-pervading yet ever-shifting sieve of feelings, beliefs, values, memories, and sensibilities through which we experience the world, the locus of the central mystery of being. There is no self, and yet without it there is nothing.
A century and a half after Whitman, Tracy K. Smith — another titanic poet of uncommon genius and insight into the human spirit — took up the subject in a short, stunning poem titled “The Everlasting Self,” from her altogether gorgeous book Wade in the Water (public library).
In the final days of her tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, Smith took part in a special evening hosted by poet Paul Muldoon at Brooklyn’s visionary classical music and culture space National Sawdust in partnership with the London Review of Books. Crowning the program was a beautiful, unusual performance: Smith reading “The Everlasting Self” in a meditative loop of verse, accompanied by music ensemble and artistic collaboration movement Sō Percussion. The result is a kind of soulful meta-meditation on the haunting, looping, interminable nature of the self that animates each ephemeral constellation of atoms comprising a human being.
THE EVERLASTING SELF
Comes in from a downpour
Shaking water in every direction —
A collaborative condition:
Gathered, shed, spread, then
Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love
From a lifetime ago, and mud
A dog has tracked across the floor.
Complement with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, poet Robert Penn Warren on the trouble with “finding yourself,” and 15-year-old Susan Sontag on the explosive elasticity of the self, then revisit Smith’s Universe in Verse reading of her sublime ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers, from her Pulitzer-winning book Life on Mars.