Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
Arouse! for you must justify me.
For a long time, I thought Walt Whitman was something of a nutjob.
I fully admit that this was a lazy opinion, gleaned from a textbook or two—and an image or two*—because any discussion of Leaves of Grass is sure to mention that the prevailing public opinion of Whitman during much his lifetime was that he was crazy, kinky, and talentless—which, if you look closely, usually means that someone is writing things that no one has ever read before, in ways that no one has ever written.
That last bit isn’t a bad summation.
He wasn’t crazy, or no more so than any other poet**—or journalist, for that matter—and quite a lot less than a few I could name (cough, previous footnote, cough). He had strong opinions and he expressed them honestly, regardless of the personal cost. And considering everything he and his family went through—especially around the Civil War—I think he kept it together pretty well.***
As for kinky . . . Look, Americans, traditionally and collectively, have always had an oddly prurient ODC complex when it comes to sex^—we’re desperate to know exactly what other people want to do to which other people while reacting with shocked disapproval—or worse—when we actually find out.^^ And it seems just a bit obsessive to me that so many people have devoted so much time trying to suss out whether Whitman was gay or hetero, bisexual or pansexual, or none of the above.
Does it really matter, when the man can express universal need like this?
To a Stranger
Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me
as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours
only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you
take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or
wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
That takes care of talentless quite nicely as well, doesn’t it?
Whitman released the first edition of Leaves in 1855 and it was immediately lauded by poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson–there’s an endorsement for you—and condemned by the upstanding public. It cost him at least one job when his boss figured out he’d written such obscene stuff, but he continued to work on it and add to it for the rest of his life.
It is his life, in verse, all the bits and pieces, the failures, the victories, and the overwhelming need for connection, at a time when feelings were all but swathed in classical allusions and rhythms were set by weight of tradition.
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
But Whitman’s feelings are out there for all the world to see—if they can bear to look—and his rhythms are straight from the Song of Songs.
O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you,
As I walk by your side or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is
playing within me.
No wonder he made some people uncomfortable. And no wonder he changed the way everyone saw poetry, and what poetry could do.
The business man the acquirer vast,
After assiduous years surveying results, preparing for departure,
Devises houses and lands to his children, bequeaths stocks, goods,
funds for a school or hospital,
Leaves money to certain companions to buy tokens, souvenirs of gems
But I, my life surveying, closing,
With nothing to show to devise from its idle years,
Nor houses nor lands, nor tokens of gems or gold for my friends,
Yet certain remembrances of the war for you, and after you,
And little souvenirs of camps and soldiers, with my love,
I bind together and bequeath in this bundle of songs.
So, yeah, maybe Whitman was sometimes a bit too intense and raw, and honest and uncontained. I don’t know as I could stand a steady diet of him, and while I’m up for a barbaric yawp most of the time, not all his poems work for me.^^^
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth searching out the ones that do, because when they do, that gossamer thread of his conducts pure electricity to the soul.
That’s not a bad legacy at all.
* He looked quite a bit like the child of Gandalf and Charles Manson in his later years, not that anyone knew who Gandalf was at the time, of course, or Manson, and it wouldn’t have helped if they had. But still, Burning-eyed Mountain Man isn’t a particularly reassuring persona in any time period.
** Barring Ezra Pound, who is in a class by himself and welcome to it.
*** One brother, a soldier, was captured by the enemy, one died of TB, and another was committed to an asylum.
^ And I really wish I could say this was Nineteenth – and Twentieth-Century thinking, but it seems to be lingering past the millennia marker. Can’t we all just mind our own business and let other people mind theirs?
^^ Though we certainly aren’t the only ones. The Love Which Dare not Speak its Name, my a . . . well, never mind.
^^^ “I Sing the Body Electric” isn’t my favorite, though I enjoyed the Fame version.