I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood
I know I am deathless.
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass.
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)
Inconsequential and Stuck in my Mind
The Big Message parts of this excerpt soaked right in. I read it quickly to proofread, slowly for understanding, then again to let it steep like tea… and again after stirring in a little milk of understanding and the sweet sugar of how poetry feels in the mouth when read out loud.
I stumbled on one thing. Did you, too? Are any of you like me? If you are, you have to know: what is a carlacue? Where does this “carlacue” word come from?
Take a look at what I found from part of a reader’s letter that was published in a 1898 literary review.
There used to be a French coin called un ecu, corresponding in value to two shillings English, or fifty cents American; and in French Canada one still frequently hears the words un ecu used instead of “fifty cents.” In the early days in Canada the English sixpence was very common, and the habitants called it quart d’ecu, a quarter of an ecu. The English-speaking country people corrupted this into “carlacue” (or rather “carlicue”), and often used the word in a secondary sense to signify a trifle or a thing of little value – e.g., “I don’t care a carlicue.” “It is not worth a carlique.” The corrupted word was afterwards carried to the United States, and it there underwent further alterations of spelling as well as of meaning.
Literature: an international gazette of criticism, Volume 3
September 17, 1898
A carlacue is the same as a curlicue. I always thought that the word curlicue came from putting “curly” together with “Q,” resulting in a visual cognate for the shape of a really curly curl. It seems that the “curly Q” came about much later in the game.
Neat, huh? A “carlacue” was a little nothing even before it was Americanized into being a curly little Q of hair in Whitman’s poem.
Layered meanings are nice in poetry. (Yes, I am smiling.) I wonder if Whitman knew that the word came from a defunct coin. The etymology information is from only six years after his death. What a nice juxtaposition: an inconsequential bit of cold, hard, immutable coin and the forever-precious, blow-away-softness of a child’s wayward curl, all in the same word.
If anyone reading this is a linguist who can confirm these charming factoids, please speak up. And, is this slang still used in French Canada?
The Voyager, Influenced
In my travels, in search of understanding this bit of Whitman, I ran across a few mentions of his work in the journals of Jack Kerouac. As soon as I saw that Kerouac had mentioned Whitman, I could see them on the road, riding off across the country together, side by side on the bench seats of some old land yacht of a car, philosophizing and pondering. Makes perfect sense.
Kerouac notes on this transcript dated 1940 that the first five lines are a version of Walt Whitman’s (from the long opening poem of the 1885 edition of Leaves of Grass, later titled “Song of Myself”) and the remainder of the poem is his writing. In a journal entry from June 4, 1941, Kerouac writes: “Again got up late. Read more Whitman – great man, regardless of what they say. True, he may be an old sensuous wolf, but his philosophy of individualism cannot be beat – although his democracy is inapplicable. […] Here’s something from Whitman that is deathless:
I know I am august
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate
itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never
Also, about man:
WHO GOES THERE?
HANKERING, GROSS, MYSTICAL, NUDE…
My next reading will be London & Wolfe.”
In 1950 Kerouac wrote to New England poet Rosaire Dion-Levesque, who had published a French translation of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “Whitman was my first real influence; it was on the spur of reading Whitman that I decided to cross the country.”
Jack Kerouac’s journal
from Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings
commentary by Paul Marion
“Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” isn’t Kerouac. It’s from the beginning of this excerpt from Whitman’s Song of Myself. It could almost be part of Ginsberg’s Howl.