Sunday, May 31, 2009

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

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,
chaste, matured,
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.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jasonistutz said...

Thank you for your explorations about Whitman. I feel we are as brothers in him, as, often, strangers are brothers in Christ.

It was Whitman who gave to me love where I saw only loneliness- the incredible longing for companionship, love, and transcendence shared with another, because of another, for another.

I, too, have loved Calumus and Children of Adam. His lifting up of a rude, lusty man or woman. I have not become a homosexual, as perhaps I thought I would, though in his poems about the love of a man for a man I have been justified to simply adore and love uninhibited my beloved male friends.

I would like to share with you a poem I wrote, which I hold dear to me, and reflects upon Walt Whitman within it:


Open

I was scared by how open I was,
playing basketball with the macho boys of my neighborhood.
It's a little awkward when, standing before a person,
I almost feel them completely

and know that they know
they are opened enough, that moment,
to feel me.

We are uncomfortable with that kind of connection,
that kind of knowing, that inseparateness,
the cleaving together of our two energies,
there amongst callous and mocking boys.
Are we not strong enough in ourselves that we
so meekly allowed ourselves to cloy this way to each other?
Did it stem from a weak need?

It's much better than that!
It is our inseparable unity,
our relationship making itself known.
And yes, I suppose, it is precisely what we needed
all along.

Uncomfortable, making it less real for him,
I jammed my face to the side,
half out of our joined flow, as though aside to the audience of our second selves,
to indicate also that I was to say 'not really, '
or 'kind of, ' or 'half-way' because
too much sweetness might start a riot among these rough boys.

Really,
right then and there, under the cosmos
as players turn like solar systems around opposite goals,
we want to loaf with each other
to elope in the inner world between us
despite everything else that demands our existence that day.

Really, we want to bask in mutual light
growing beautiful in each other's attentive gifts;
to luxuriate upon the sidewalk
picnicking in our emotional circumference
as all the people pass by around us

But
we are adults,
or trying to be.
We cannot just dropp our house of cards all at once.

Oh, society- the misguided devil in my mind
whose eyes I fear for its beams of judgment.
We dare not open ourselves too much, dare not be too different:
for, if so harsh a judgment was passed,
we might never be seen again
locked away in someone else's cage of fears,
stamped with the brutal mark: INSANE.
But is it insane to live and love; to be careless,
to hunger no more;
and to beckon a chosen loved one
from the vicious matrix of their society-work
just to loaf with me, here, today
on the basketball court of my most present contemplation?

Ahh, but what would everyone think?
And what does it mean that we love?
Is it sexual? and if sexual, wrong?
and Haven't they any work to do? they'd say.
Haven't they got anymore fight?

But isn't it better to just be
in the beautiful light gathered in this moment
by two awakening souls?

(to loaf like Walt Whitman
on the grass of our being-together
To feel the warmth of the sun on our faces
and speak only as our hearts' impulses dictate.

First, to try the bad, as Whitman did;
to war like the others and support them
and reject it only then, when his heart could find
no more strength to divide men from men,
seeing all points, every last man
living equidistant to the infinity of his heart.
Then to sidestep
and be the wet nurse for wounded soldiers
at once father and mother and brother
and often the last light of hope and love for a man,
but the last and the best the man would know on earth) .

cont'd

5:39 PM  
Blogger Jasonistutz said...

Aren't we still individuals, uniquely our selves
despite this incomparable feeling of unity?
Don't we deserve this day to feel our humanity and our brotherhood at last?

What our cultural education taught us is but a puzzling distraction from our true needs as a race:
It is a plaything for our hearts, a senseless obstacle to true brotherhood,
separating ourselves from each other according to made-up values, contentious,
while surfacely proselytizing a justice we don't understand.
We say, 'We won't hurt others, we promise, for the moment, at least, '
and with calm eyes and a distant heart
we conduct ourselves with a mild, well ordered consideration toward our acquaintances
or, inversely, a gross familiarity that crushes us together like mortar
until our individual thought is dismayed.

(But, the real America, the America we all idealize,
is striving to speak truly, to be real with people.
We know what it feels like, sounds like, looks like
when a person is real toward another- we lust for that way of being:

To present ourselves as we are, not some glittery image
we want to be seen in the reflected light of.
Our famous actors and politicians, we pray, secretly,
that they would treat any man as their brother, that
they would not build themselves up before us
that they would listen and see the importance of common things) .

* * * * * * *

Here, on a basketball court
in a working class neighborhood in Queens
surrounded by manly displays of toughness and skill
two guys, strangers until that day, for a moment
think in unison of something beautiful
and a light opens up in their hearts toward each other.
For a moment, until they shake their joy aside,
they feel their connectedness,
that they, too, of all people, share an intimate bond of love.

We reach a moment like this
and the consideration does not fade from our hearts but blooms,
and we know ourselves yet see ourselves as each other.

It is No. and Yes. and Yes. and No. for all of it.

I don't mean reject society, the accumulated work of our fathers and father's fathers.
Not to abandon the great skyscraper they built for us
brick upon brick, great idea upon great idea, effort upon effort,
the existence of each man and woman
good or bad, an irreplaceably vital contribution
from the beginning unto the present day.
But, we are constrained by our fathers as much as we are engendered by them.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Jasonistutz said...

The rules of society are like a baby crib
for children who are still learning how to be good to each other.
So, for now, we must go to our stations
and try to accumulate wealth for ourselves and our families
and we must comply as best we can within our hems and obligations
engaging our lives with the lives of others.
We must work inside of useful habits,
establish for ourselves a routine that suits our needs
and set our lives in motion each day
like a clock we wind with little intentional actions
just to keep it going the right way,
so that, with our minds free to do a larger work
en masse cohort with all people of Earth,

we may question and argue at length
(our every action, a theory boldly stated,
and we debate them on radio and television
in the newspapers, courtrooms, Houses of Congress and Senate;
and we discuss them with our children and parents at supper,
as well as on the streets amongst strangers;
shouted from the windows of hurried taxi cabs,
at the water cooler hot in the ear of an associate,
or whispered, huddled secretly in a corner,
with a shy, almost frightened, almost revolutionary voice
into the ears of only our most trusted friends) :
what it is, exactly,
to love thine enemy and treat thy neighbor as thyself?

Yeah, let us question it in the subtlest thoughts of our hearts
so quiet, only God can hear
for, only quiet can reach the threshold of God's hearing.

And, if at last we learn the lesson
so that we do not need anymore
to think anymore about it
even to define it for our selves with words anymore
(if we are meant to learn it en masse)
we will dropp our credit cards, our clever attitudes
and the last heartless words that were left dangling there on the cliff of our minds,
to peer upon others in whom we find interest and beauty
and, direct from the emergent spirit in our hearts
engage them with a lover's urgency.

And we generate in our connection with our new companions
the energetic equivalent to the creation of a new sun
emerging between two conscious peoples
regenerating in the vast wombs of our new found relationships.

And, before the work of our Creator in ourselves is satisfied,
let not less than many millions of new seeds of light be sewn
(genius derivatives of the Highest Creator developing between us)
And, I see in my vision, now,
from each one, a baby is born, who,
from an egg of ultra bright, radiating light,
steps down to the earth
with adult like confidence in its limbs.

Will we never learn it as a whole?
Maybe as a progression
our violence as a race will become milder
while we still bicker, but more mildly, amongst us.

Or maybe our violence will not diminish.
Could we still claim to ourselves the passion of being human
if our violence was subdued
and we walked like neutered lions through the world?

But, then, what? What are we learning here?
We can not be with violence anymore! ... the common heart of mankind is grieving
and let it grieve- let our suffering change our minds at last.
Without violence, we would love the more greatly.
Wisdom, not war, would be evident;
what wisdom is (in the action to be done) would be evident, not the war-action.

But, now, we instigate war and kill each other
and lament, still, about injustice?
Must we mourn for our children who are the casualties of our ignorance?
feel ashamed of our wise elders for their simplicity?

Must our twisted relationships eat at us?
Must even our own crooked thoughts drive us to an end
until we at last lift up
from the midst of this endless, violent banter,
and cast off all the old reasons
to learn for ourselves the better way?

Best to you and yours,

Jason Stutz

5:42 PM  

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