Beginning Friday and running through May 19, the ArtsCenter in Carrboro is staging the southeastern premiere of “Walt,” a musical play about the life of Walt Whitman–written by one of the poet’s distant relatives, Wm. W. Whitman. Last Saturday, the ArtsCenter held a community reading of Whitman’s classic epic “Song of Myself” on the Weaver Street lawn, featuring more than three dozen readers…
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I first encountered Whitman as a college senior. I needed a few classes to finish my English major—any would do—and here was this hotshot young professor, William Pannapacker, offering a class called “Walt Whitman’s America.” It met for three hours every Monday evening, and that meant no getting up early for an 8 a.m. class.
The first night, with snow on the ground outside and our desks prearranged in a circle, Pannapacker told us we’d be reading “Song of Myself.” Out loud.
We were a bit skeptical. The thing was fifty pages long. Yes, he said, it’s going to take a while. Trust me, though, it’ll be worth it.
I can’t tell you I was instantly hooked. I can’t tell you it moved me to tears. But I can tell you this: when I think back and try to remember what all I learned in college, that snowy January evening is always the first thing that comes to mind…
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.
(This picture’s on the class website; that’s me in the Michigan State t-shirt, front row, second from right. I don’t know why I was wearing that shirt to class; I usually wore it to bed.)
Fast-forward to 2005. I’m in grad school, living in New Jersey. By now I’ve got a pretty well-developed read on Whitman: I assign Leaves of Grass to my students, I write papers on him for conferences, I’m even building my dissertation around him. Whitman’s hot stuff, academically speaking: it’s the 150th anniversary of Leaves’ publication, so there’s no shortage of Whitman-themed events. I end up attending one at Walt’s old house in Camden, now a converted museum; we take a field trip to the cemetery where he’s buried, and there’s Pannapacker sitting across from me on the bus. (Whitman scholarship is still a small world.)
Then a couple months later I get a call from a random stranger: they’re organizing a public reading of “Song of Myself,” at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Would I join?
It’s a perfect evening, cloudless and warm; the sun sets behind our backs as we sit facing Brooklyn. It’s the same view Walt described in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a beautiful poem about timelessness and the ties of experience that bind us all, generations past and yet to come:
It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
One by one we take our turns. When my time comes I ascend the stage and take my place behind the podium, on the edge of Manhattan, facing the crowd and the pier and America, squinting into the setting sun.
I’d never really noticed the passage they’d given me, buried in the middle as it was; but as I stand there reading it I find myself choking up, and I gaze out into the crowd and I see I’m not alone:
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 of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn 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.
God, I’m choking up reading it now.
Who was—who is—Walt Whitman? Why does he matter? Someone told me once (there’s expert testimony for you) that poetry was a dying art, that the lyrics of popular music had taken over the role it used to play. I scoffed then, but I believe him now: of all the truly staggering words that have been written in the last fifty years, most have been set to a tune. “Kathy’s Song.” “Thunder Road.” There are as many great poets today as there ever were, but now they all have guitars.
So why does Whitman continue to fascinate?
Why am I writing this?
I think if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say this: Whitman fascinates because he simultaneously reminds us of what we are and of what we want to be. There’s a difference between the two, of course, and he sees it and he shakes his head—but it’s a sympathetic shake, one that knows and understands, one that loves us not in spite of the difference but because of it. That difference is part of what makes us human—and part of what makes us American—and Whitman embraces both. In fact for him, the two categories are practically synonymous.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then….I contradict myself;
I am large….I contain multitudes.
That’s the gist of Walt Whitman, if you want to know. It was 1855, the country was falling apart, and here was this hotshot philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, offering what he said was a way to put it all back together again. Emerson was a Romanticist, which means (among other things) he was a cultural nationalist: he believed in the idea of the nation, a people who share a land, a language, a history; and he believed that nations grow unified and strong when they share a distinct national culture—which America, at the time, didn’t really have.
But Emerson was also a Transcendentalist—which means (among other things) he also believed that all people of all nations were connected on a higher level, within something he called the Over-Soul. And he was particularly excited about America: every other nation was limited by a specific land, a specific language, a specific set of long-established traditions; but the new and still-unsettled America wasn’t as bounded, and its increasingly diverse people had little in common besides their mere humanity. So that would be the ‘national’ culture that would unite the country, he suggested: one that was all-encompassing, unbounded, sweeping and diverse, one that—in the name of ‘America’—captured the full scope of humanity, to a degree that no other nation could approach. All that remained was for someone to create it.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nations, the nation of many nations—the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable.
And so along comes Whitman, taking up Emerson’s gauntlet to let the universal Over-Soul speak for the particular nation, creating in the process a yet-unrealized vision of America that continues to inspire and challenge us because it is our unrealized vision too. Walt Whitman’s America is democratic (the President and the prostitute stand side by side); it is working-class and rugged; it is almost indescribably vast (his catalogs of American life famously run on for pages and pages); and it is free. (Whitman’s great innovation: even the verse is free.) We talk about unity and diversity as if they’re opposites; Whitman says they reinforce each other. We talk about freedom and equality as if the one negates the other; Whitman insists they walk hand in hand.
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
That’s why we still love Whitman—politically.
But that’s not what draws us in.
It is time to explain myself…let us stand up.
It’s 2013. I’m in North Carolina. I haven’t taught Whitman in two years. I can’t remember the last time I talked about him, can’t remember the last time I read one of his poems. I can’t remember the last time I read any poems. I’m on a journey here, people.
Then out of the blue I get a call: they’re organizing a community reading of “Song of Myself” on the Weaver Street lawn in Carrboro, in the shadow of the lightning-struck tree. Would I join?
The day is cloudy and unusually cold. I shiver. There are a few dozen people gathered on the lawn, most to read, some just to listen. A young woman leans against a bearded young man as they sit on the ground, following along in a dogeared book. Cars and passersby hum past on the street behind us. The wind hisses through the spring leaves.
I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.
What is it about Walt Whitman that animates the senses? He tells us that everything, down to the lowliest thing, is a miracle, and we believe him. He insists the slightest perception is the greatest gift; and suddenly everything I hear is amplified, everything I see is brightened, everything I touch is electric.
I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.
Scholars debate Whitman’s sexuality, but I find the talk hard to believe. Not just because strict categories like “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are twentieth-century inventions and trying to impose them on our ancestors retroactively is a fool’s errand (though that’s true too). No…I disbelieve it because I see in Whitman a man of such aching passion, such acute perception and feeling, that even the slightest touch would make him combust. That’s why his mere words still elevate our senses, hundreds of miles away and ever so many generations hence. I feel his pain.
You villain touch! what are you doing? …my breath is tight in its throat;
Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.
Blind loving wrestling touch! Sheathed hooded sharptoothed touch!
Did it make you ache so leaving me?
I can barely hear the readers on the lawn. The footsteps of passersby are too loud. The thoughts of the young woman and the bearded man. The wind hissing through the spring leaves.
Back in 2001, sitting in class on a Monday evening, I wrote a poem about Walt Whitman. It was a parody of “Song of Myself”—and a pretty good one too—inspired by the story that Whitman had become a household name, late in life, by endorsing dozens of products.
I market myself,
And what I produce you shall purchase,
For every dollar belonging to you as good belongs to me…
The thing about Walt Whitman: he wasn’t perfect. He was an opportunist. He wrote glowing reviews of his own work and had them published anonymously in journals and magazines. He could be a bit of a racist. He worked closely with the writer John L. O’Sullivan—you know him; he coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny”—and that wonderfully all-inclusive expansiveness that makes him the poet of the Over-Soul also makes him the poet of colonialism too. (That strange democratic brand of American colonialism—turning its conquests into new states, rather than subordinate colonies—but still, colonialism nonetheless.)
Wider and wider they spread, expanding and always expanding,
Outward and outward and forever outward.
But therein lies the gravity. Whitman is human: bad as well as good, wicked as well as holy. There is no human, and nothing that is human, that falls outside his embrace; and there is no human and nothing that is human that he does not demand us to embrace as well.
Take an octagon and add another side to it, then another, then another. Eventually there’ll be so many sides that you can’t tell one from the other; more and more it’ll come to look like a perfect circle. So it is with Whitman. So it is with humanity.
Not long ago, the great Sherman Alexie was watching Native American boys playing basketball on a reservation, all sweat and rippling sinews, and suddenly found himself envisioning Walt Whitman in the middle, watching without touching, overwhelmed with the sight and the sound and the smell and the sensibility:
Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles…
God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.
That is Walt Whitman, ladies and gentlemen. Standing in the middle of a basketball court, motionless yet moving. Sitting in a classroom on a Monday night, gazing out the window at the snow. Staring into the sun on a Manhattan pier, feeling the breeze from the distant ocean. Leaning against the bark of the lightning-struck tree, listening to the wind whistling in the leaves.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you