Poet Laureate of Decomposition

Happy birthday to the only poet (I’m confident) to have a garden fertilizer named after him. Yes, it’s Walt Whitman‘s day; born 1819; and some time long after, honored by a former UC Berkeley English lit student who started a designer dirt business called American Soil Products (now located up the road in Richmond). One of the company’s offerings is Walt Whitman Compost. Years ago, when I had occasion to write a Sunday business feature on American Soil for the late, lamented (by me) Hearst Examiner, I asked the owner how the compost got its name. Simple. A poem from “Leaves of Grass” called “This Compost.” Whitman contemplates how the earth has disposed of the dead, all “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations; Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” Then he continues:

“Behold this compost! behold it well!

Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!

The grass of spring covers the prairies,

The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,

The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,

The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,

The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,

The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,

The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,

The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,

The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,

Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,

Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;

The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.”

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