Walt Whitman: A Birthday Meditation
Walt Whitman by the window of his room, Camden, NJ
Walt Whitman has been very much on my mind these past few weeks—and today, May 31, is his birthday. A Gemini; born a century plus five years minus one day before my own father, whose birthday was May 30th. (It's Whitman's 190th birthday today, if we're counting.) A spring/summer birthday; unlike my own, which is a deep winter birthday, in the "moon of popping trees."
Whitman has been on my mind in part because of the set of lectures on CD I was listening to as I drove, this past month, through New England. And I did, after considerable effort, find his home in Camden, NJ, and briefly stop in for a visit. I did not enter or take a tour, as I had wished, as the Foundation was not open; or open by appointment only. But I stood in front of his last home for awhile, in the cool shade of a sunny spring midday, and took in the atmosphere of the place.
I stood in the shade of the trees in front of the building, took several photos, and thought for awhile about the poet before driving on to Pennsylvania.
Walt Whitman is my fellow-traveler. He accompanies me on this journey—not least because he is the poet of inclusion, of taking into himself all of life, all of experience, all masculine and feminine, and embracing them equally—not least for all that, but also because I am a reflection of his lifelong quest to express, artistically, his love for other men. We are alike, or rather I follow in his footsteps, in our love of men and our use of art to depict that love. We seek similar inclusions. I cannot but reflect his art in my own.
ms. of The Unexpress'd
There is literally too much to say on this topic, just now. It inclines me to pull out all my Whitman scholarly books of the shelves are review them. It sends me off to re-read the poems, especially the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass. It overwhelms me with linkages and emotions and ideas.
The recent roadtrip to Maine and back has been most difficult to integrate: so much happened, both light and dark. It might take me a long time. Meanwhile, I feel myself stuttering after meaning, after experience, writing what I can contain, for now, in words, knowing that so much is left out, and must be. I can only sketch, not depict in any finished way, what I went through, what was encountered, how I felt changed afterwards. Everything's the same, and nothing's the same.
I wrote over a year ago my own Ode to Walt Whitman, which says what I feel about Whitman right now, still, better than I can say in prose. Maybe these sorts of thoughts need to be poems, not essays. I will struggle with this for now, and maybe turn to poems later.
book cover & spine of 1860 edition
One of the parts of Whitman's life-story that I have been thinking about was his visit to Louisiana, sometime before or around the time of his first publishing efforts. We don't have a great deal of information about this trip to the deep south; Whitman himself didn't discuss it much. It has been speculated that the poet underwent a personal crisis there and then, which led to his own opening up—spiritually, sexually, and as a writer. It was the 1850s when Whitman came into full flower as a physical (sexual) and mental (artistic) person. After the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, which was the single most expanded edition in the book's publishing history, there was a turning-inward, a self-censoring of the fearless sexual openness of the 1860 edition, represented in the two sections called Children of Adam and Calamus. Starting with the 1867 edition, Whitman rewrote some of the poems to be more covert about their homosexual content, and dropped many entirely. But what draws me to the 1855 edition over all the others is this very open sexuality, this male-male sexuality; of course I'm not alone in this. What happened to Whitman in the south? Was it a mystical experience? A sexual awakening? An artistic explosion? Some combination of all of these? The only real clue we have is what Whitman himself says, obliquely, in one of the best-known of the Calamus poems:
I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there
without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it and
twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
solitary in a wide in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.
Homosexual literature has often been coded; what remains startlingly contemporary about Whitman was how often he could be explicit rather than coded. But there are layers of meaning in this poem, it seems to me, that refer to love, to bonding, to not only sexuality but spiritual companionship and connection with another. I view it as a poem of marriage, in a way.
Whitman with Peter Doyle
Of course, Whitman did have several longtime companions in his life; Horace Traubel was the last one; but Whitman was often photographed with or wrote in letters about his other close friends, his comrades, his serial beloveds.
What I feel connected to, in Whitman—and what I wrote of in my own Ode—is this very comradeship he speaks of. It moves in cycles in my own life, which has often been virtually celibate and monastic, but rarely lonely. I too see the tree uttering joyous life without a friend or lover near—and I too know that I want that friend or lover near, as Whitman does, whether or not I can survive alone or not. There is surviving, and there is living.
consecutive portraits of Whitman by Matthew Brady
Available resources by and about Whitman are voluminous. Many of his poem's manuscripts can be found at the Walt Whitman Collection at the Bienecke Library at Yale. Several volumes of Horace Traubel's oral history of Whitman's last years, With Walt Whitman in Camden can be found at The Walt Whitman Archive. Traubel's legacy of recorded conversations with Whitman is a great and enduring resource for Whitman scholars, full of insight and anecdote and reminiscence. Volume Nine, with Whitman's final months, and Traubel's collections of enconiums sent by well-wishers, and his notes on the funeral and what came after, was only published in 1996, over a hundred years after the fact.
Whitman photographed late in life, at his home in Camden by artist Thomas Eakins
Whitman loved to be photographed—there are 128 images of him at The Walt Whitman Archive—he knew himself, or created himself, to be the first celebrity poet. This was not all ego on Whitman's part: it was an almost prescient awareness of the power of technology, specifically the new tool of photography, to spread the word. It was self-marketing, certainly; but it was also, I think, a love of the technologies themselves. Whitman's constant self-representation in photograph was playful self-awareness: a very good sense of the power and influence of image-making.
I'll end, for now, with two of the poems from Calamus, part of the original group of 45 numbered poems in that section. Both of these speak to my own feelings, my own experience. I am not without experience in seeking out and loving men; but what I like about these poems is how Whitman describes the feelings, the sometimes wordless feelings, that surround encounters with lovers, and with the beloved. There is a quietness here that is not covert or concealed, but accepting that this is how things were, and are.
A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove
late of a winter night, and I unremark'd seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and
seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking and
oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,
perhaps not a word.
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.