Interview with Kenneth M. Price
August 14, 2010
[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln and co--director of The Walt Whitman Archive, conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue on August 14, 2010. In 2005, Price chaired an international panel of scholars and poets at a forum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at the Ikeda Center of Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.]
Today is August 14. On this date in 1947, Daisaku Ikeda, at the age of 19, first encountered Josei Toda, second Soka Gakkai president and a man who would become his lifelong mentor. Mr. Ikeda has shared how the week before he met with Toda he was touched by the sight of grass growing from the ashes. At the time he was surrounded by devastating destruction as a result of World War II, but he was moved by the life force or power of nature.
Inspired by the sight of the grass, Ikeda had been thinking about composing a poem in praise of the power of nature. The evening he first encountered Toda at a Soka Gakkai discussion meeting, Ikeda felt the same powerful life force emanating from him. Then towards the end of the discussion meeting, the young Ikeda stood up and shared the poem he had just spontaneously composed:
From whence do you come?
And where do you go?
The moon has set,
But the sun has not yet risen.
In the chaos of darkness before the dawn
Seeking the light,
To dispel the dark clouds from my mind
To find a great tree unbowed by the tempest
I emerge from the Earth.
What is your impression of the poem?
Kenneth Price: It is powerful in its simplicity. Its unpretentiousness is part of its charm, as is its rootedness in the earth even as it is concerned about spiritual issues. It seems to me very effective and compelling.
One thing that I continue to wonder about is the relationship between the "you" and the "I." It opens with the emphasis of "from whence do you come?" And then in the final four lines turns to the "I"--"I advance" to "I emerge from the earth." Maybe it is more powerful because it is slightly mysterious. Perhaps it is the fact that the people who influence us the most--we aren’t entirely sure how that influence has occurred.
Masao Yokota: What are your thoughts on the significance of the word "Traveler"?
Kenneth Price: I was interested in the way the poem opened in the first two lines "Traveler, / From whence do you come?" It is a very powerful opening because it puts the emphasis on the other person and tries to understand that person from their perspective. It gets out of one’s own limited view of life in what is happening.
The traveler is on a journey from one place to another. Exactly where they are going on that journey is unclear, but hopefully it is a progression from one state of being to a better condition.
Masao Yokota: It may be typical sentiment of youth to want to "advance," but to actually do so requires boldness. Ronald Bosco (Distinguished Professor of English and American Literature at the University at Albany, State University of New York) has pointed out that the sense of advancing in the face of uncertainty, when one cannot yet see the approaching dawn, is very "Whitmanesque."
Price: It requires a great deal of faith to advance into mystery and lack of clarity. But it is a faith in the fundamental of goodness of life and nature and the cosmos. Not everyone has that faith, but Whitman does and it seems as though Ikeda does as well.
Masao Yokota: How does Whitman deal with the unknown?
Price: I think with courage and faith and with ebullience and a personality that was given to believe that there is form and harmony and happiness undergirding the universe. There is an ultimate bedrock faith in Whitman that love holds the universe together rather than malevolence, maliciousness, hatred, or violence. If you believe that love and goodness are at the heart of the universe, then it is easier to step into the fog
Masao Yokota: Could you elaborate on what you said earlier about Ikeda’s poem being powerful in its simplicity and unpretentiousness?
Price: I admire unpretentious poetry. I admire writing whether in prose or poetry that does not have to show off, that does not have to use a whole lot of huge words or drip with its ostentatious displays of learning, or allusions that people don’t understand. He draws on common everyday experiences in Nature with ordinary words, but well chosen words that contribute to the affect and power of the poem.
It takes a great deal of confidence and a sense of one’s amplitude to avoid showing off. I see this all the time in scholarly writings that the people who are least secure about their positions are always reaching for the jargon or the theoretical--seeming sophistication. And the people who really know what they are talking about are able to say it directly, simply, and powerfully. They are able to write in a way that is persuasive for other scholars, but also their writing could be handed to just an ordinary citizen on the street.
Masao Yokota: What is Whitman’s view of nature?
Price: We are part of nature and we live in it and through it. Whitman’s book is Leaves of Grass after all. He is fascinated by grass because of a number of features.
Whitman says that it grows everywhere--it grows equally for rich people and poor people, for black people and white people, here in the US and everywhere in the world. There is also a way in which grass is largely a common plant; it is not an orchid or an exotic plant and in a way one part of grass is interchangeable with another and he likens that to being a poet of the common ordinary people.
Grass is the emergence of new life; it is the sustainer of life. When we are put into the ground, we will become the grass. So it is part of a cyclical view of nature as well.
Masao Yokota: That’s why I was personally moved by the line "I emerge from the earth." Mr. Ikeda was also definitely inspired by the grass growing from the ashes. What connections have you observed so far between Whitman and Ikeda’s poetry?
Price: It is the use of ordinary language to achieve very deep insights, the drawing on nature to reach to insights leading to spiritual understanding, desire for harmony with other people and with nature. The metaphor of the traveler is similar to Whitman’s notion of the open road and traveling there.
I see in both of them, despite a great deal of optimism or maybe something that makes their optimism more persuasive, is an awareness of the difficulties and dangers ahead, the onslaughts of sufferings, and trials as Ikeda puts it. Neither man is simplistic and just glossing over the terrible things that are in the world. Yet there is something buoyant about the personality and spirit of both of them.
Kenneth M. Price is the Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of The Walt Whitman Archive. He received his B.A. from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and then earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago. Since 1995, he has served as co-director of The Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic research and teaching tool, that has made Whitman’s vast body of work easily accessible to scholars, students, and general readers alike. In 2009, Prof. Price received a Digital Innovation Award from American Council of Learned Societies.