(In 2003 The Country and Abroad published this appreciation. Though we no have Laura Bush to kick around, we will always have Whitman.)
I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your eyes till you understand them.
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Walt Whitman. You know the name. You may have seen an old daguerreotype of him in 1870s as the Good Gray Poet with a bushy beard and pale eyes under his felt hat. You probably read his classic book in high school or college, Leaves of Grass, a monument of American literature and character. And if, like me, you read contemporary poetry of a certain school, i.e. understandable, you know that Whitman is the patron saint of the belief that poetry should belong to any and everyone. In the thin volume that I own, The Essential Whitman, edited by Galway Kinnell, one of my favorite poets, Kinnell thanked Whitman in his introduction for nothing less than transforming his writing life. After rediscovering Whitman in his late Twenties, Kinnell wrote, “Soon I understood that poetry could be transcendent, hymn like, a cosmic song, and yet remain idolatrously attached to creatures and things of our world. Under Whitman’s spell I stopped writing in rhyme and meter and in rectangular stanzas and turned to long-lined, loosely cadenced verse; and at once I felt immensely liberated. Once again, as when I began writing, it seemed it might be possible to say everything in poetry.”
Allen Ginsberg said the same thing in his own way. For an epigraph to Howl, his amazing bombshell poem that launched the Beat revolution, he quoted Whitman directly: “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jams!”
Freedom, brotherhood, democracy. Walt Whitman has come to represent the best of our national beliefs. Even the President’s wife, Laura Bush, intended to celebrate him last February at the White House, until an invited poet proposed to read an anti-war poem at the event. Not a week goes by that I don’t seem to read his name somewhere. Along with Emily Dickinson, he’s the founder of American poetry, the subject of many homage poems, old and new biographies, even an unusual novel, Tripmaster Monkey, in which the author, Maxine Hong Kingston, recasts him as a Chinese American hippie in San Francisco in the Sixties. And why not? Whitman strikes a chord in everyone. Except me.
For years, I didn’t get Leaves of Grass. Not that I didn’t read my slender edition of The Essential Whitman from beginning to end once or twice, or open it many times to a random page in hopes of chancing upon a passage that captured my fancy. But all that I could find were the long lines, heavy repetition, and Nineteenth Century diction. What was so exciting about:
The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The sun I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.
Even the sex sounded peculiar:
Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet.
To be fair to the Whitmanites, I blamed myself rather than the poem. At my New England boarding school in the Seventies, I fell under the sway of Howl at that impressionable age when teenagers in traditional English classes read Leaves of Grass. When I finally tried Whitman in my 40s, I figured I was just too old, too settled in my contemporary tastes to stretch and adjust to this odd Nineteenth Century classic. To be honest, I rarely read poetry published before 1970. Anything with a “thee” or a “thou” looked deadly.
Then I attended a poetry festival in downtown Manhattan that featured epic poetry. For some time, I’d been interested in Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the Hero’s Journey in myths, a storyline that screenwriters often use in movies. While I’d seen this journey recast for modern times in films ranging from Casablanca to Chinatown, I now had the chance to hear the ancient epics. And I wasn’t disappointed. I was captivated by performances of Gilgamesh in modern English, Beowulf in the original Anglo Saxon, and the Kalavela in Finnish. I attended lectures on Dante’s Inferno and Hart Crane’s The Bridge that made me eager to read both. By Sunday morning, I was enthusiastic enough to wake up at 6 a.m. in order to drive back to Manhattan from our country house in time to attend an “Epic Writing Workshop” at Poets House in Soho. (When I told my sleepy girlfriend that I was “an aspiring epicist,” she said it sounded like a disease.)
In the next few days at home, I raced through Beowulf in modern English and struggled over The Bridge with my dictionary in hand. Then, on a lark, I opened my Essential Whitman for the umpteenth time. As you’d expect, Whitman had been an prominent figure at the festival, as Galway Kinnell, himself, had read long passages from Song of Myself, Whitman’s epic poem. Although I’d missed that reading, I’d sat at a workshop table in Poets House directly across from a Whitman quotation painted on the wall:
I stop some where waiting for you.
As usual, I didn’t understand the genius of the line. I preferred the Basho haiku wrapped around the floor-to-ceiling column:
Do not forget the plums
in the thicket.
But within minutes opening my Essential Whitman this morning, I came under its spell. On the second page of Song of Myself, Whitman writes:
Spend this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
And that’s exactly what I did, then finished the night by reading Howl for the first time in years. (The two were less alike than I thought. Ginsberg was in your face, Whitman at your side.) Contrary to my image of Whitman as an avuncular figure of history, a poet safe enough for Laura Bush at the White House, he was truly a radical thinker. And not just in 1855 when he first published Leaves of Grass. Time and again, I felt his bracing challenge to put down my world-weary attitudes, my cynicism about American society and government, my disappointment with my dysfunctional family and everyone else’s, my sadness over the fate of the environment. Not that Whitman was a Bush clan kind of optimist, a privileged Wasp who lived in snide denial of the harsh unfairnesses in life. To the contrary, I wondered if Laura Bush had even read this poet, who proclaimed:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs….
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts–voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
(By the way, although Whitman doesn’t write anything unkind about politicians in Song of Myself, he also doesn’t get around to including “the president” and his “cabinet council” until the 48th line in a long passage describing the occupations of his day. The president doesn’t rank any better or worse than trappers, carpenters, whale-boat mates, printers, immigrants, reformers, connoisseurs, canal boys, paving-men, peddlers, drovers, reporters, or the others who all have a role to play in the bustling America economy.)
Yet Whitman wasn’t a pessimist. Somehow he described slavery, warfare, and other brutalities in vivid detail while also incorporating them into an overall appreciation of life that was joyous, cocksure, even cosmic. He considered himself a direct descendent of the universe.
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid–nothing could overlay it,
For it the nebula cohered to an orb–the long slow strata piled to rest it on–vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauriods transported in their mouths and deposit it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.
In the past my mistake had been to read Song of Myself as I did contemporary poetry. It wasn’t the lyrical distillation of an experience. It wasn’t the product of painstaking wordsmithing that used metaphor, imagery, and sound to pack big emotions into compact verse. At times, Whitman tosses off a lovely phrase, such as a description of an alligator’s “tough pimples,” but I’d always been disappointed in past readings and skimmings by how few dazzling word-pictures I found. He relies on alliteration and alliteration and alliteration to move us along .
But my exposure to epic poetry had loosened up my expectations. Now I understood that Song of Myself should be read as a manifesto of values, a guide to a worthy life. It’s a litany of praise for what Whitman cherished: the landscapes he traveled, the people he met, the ideas he found most useful for uplifting the human spirit.
Start with his attitude towards time:
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or of the end.
There never was any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
In other words, Whitman didn’t believe in “the good old days” or “the best is yet to come.” He rejected nostalgia, progress, and the many other ways in which the rest of us imagine a better world than the one we have now. Whitman was satisfied with the present. He revered the present.
This minute that comes to me over the past decillions,
There is no better than it and now.
Who among us actually lives this way? Maybe some veteran Buddhists in Woodstock have achieved this state of appreciating the eternal present, but I certainly haven’t. Every week, my therapist wrestles with me over these very issues, pushing me to let go of past regrets and future hopes that may always remain unfulfilled. Whitman wanted to be my therapist, too.
Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Which isn’t to say Whitman didn’t have bad days. But he didn’t identify himself by his failures or wounds, or by his achievements. He saw his essential self as someone separate from daily vicissitudes.
Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet–the effect upon me of my early life, of the ward and city I live in, of the nation,
The latest news, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks, or of myself, or ill-doing, or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
They come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Historically, Whitman belonged to that remarkable generation of American writers, also including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who created the Church of the Self. They believed that each of us should be God to ourself, that our highest authority should by our inmost thoughts and feelings.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from,
The scent of these arm-pits is finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
These days, the Church of the Self has largely degraded into the Altar of Me. Individualism has been contaminated by narcissism and selfishness. While the President’s wife contemplates poetry, the President impresses himself on the White House running machine.
To Whitman, individualism didn’t mean privilege.
I speak the pass-word primeval–I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
(What was Laura Bush thinking? Just imagine Whitman addressing the CEO at a shareholders’ meeting.)
Individualism meant that through our senses we had the medium we needed to understand the world. To hell with creeds and beliefs. We have ears, eyes, and skin.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
The seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
And what a lively world we inhabit. Song of Myself repeatedly weaves great webs of places, people, sounds, and animals, all of them deserving our devout attention and respect.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg and the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adon the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
By the end of Song of Myself, I appreciated the genius of the Whitman quotation on the Poet’s House wall. In the final stanza he invites us, for the umpteenth time, to join this journey of appreciation:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
Weeks later, I’m now on my sixth or seventh reading of The Essential Whitman. Much of it is now familiar. But much of it also seems new with each reading. There are passages that suddenly make sense, and passages that suddenly don’t. But what I am sure of is that Whitman is the ideal tonic for 2003. His optimism isn’t triumphalism, or even happiness, but the confidence that each of can find our rightful place in the world.