Give Me Now Libidinous Joys Only
To get from Haleiwa, on Oahu’s north shore, to Honolulu, you have to drive over a little bridge near Waimea. To get from the San Polo section of Venice to San Marco, you’ll need to walk over the Rialto Bridge. And the way to get from the world’s oldest poetry to the newest is by means of a bridge whose name is Walt Whitman. In all three cases, there are other routes you can take, but these are the most direct.
As the American poet, Whitman is scrutinized, taken apart, reassembled, and categorized more than any other. Yet I find that often he ends up in the wrong pigeonhole. Some readers type him as an American original who sprang fully formed from the brow of Ralph Waldo Emerson; others take him for a Civil War hippie, a no-holds bard playing tennis without a net or even a racket. In this essay, I’ll connect Whitman to two traditions that tell a lot more about him and his poetry, the ancient tradition of dithyrambic verse and that of “the old, weird America.”
Because Emerson posted a job description for a uniquely American poet in his 1837 “American Scholar” address (“We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe”) and Whitman answered the call, far too many readers think that he sprouted from his native soil shortly after Emerson concluded his remarks. This assumption endures in part because cultural historians tend to think the world begins at the point that their own interests do; a lot of American scholars haven’t read anything written before “The American Scholar.” But the poetry of Whitman goes back to the dithyrambs of ancient Greece and, while we can’t plausibly link recorded work to unwritten literature, surely even further, to the earliest unrecorded chants. When the first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in July 1855, Emerson wrote Whitman to praise the book as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” saying also, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere.”
“Long foreground” doesn’t even begin to express Whitman’s literary pedigree. Originally, a dithyramb was “a frenzied, impassioned choric hymn and dance of ancient Greece in honor of Dionysus,” according to the dictionary definition, though it has come to mean “a wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing” or “poem written in a wild irregular strain.” Neither lyric nor narrative, the dithyramb embraces both the emotional heat of the former and the sprawl of the latter.
Euripides’ Bacchae is a good representation of Dionysian ecstasies and the dithyrambs that voice them. The play begins as Dionysus, god of wine and fertility, returns to his hometown of Thebes, angry and ready to wreak revenge. His mother was the Theban princess Semele, daughter of Cadmus, and his father Zeus. While pregnant with Dionysus, Semele was killed by thunderbolts when Zeus revealed himself to her in his true form. Semele’s sisters, including Agave, Pentheus’s mother, lied to Cadmus and said that the child was not Zeus’s. Because of this impiety, Dionysus has possessed the women of Thebes and set them dancing. Dionysus is also offended by his cousin Pentheus, now king of Thebes, since Pentheus has discouraged his worship.
The play begins with a thunderclap as Dionysus accounts for his anger against those who have offended him; his impassioned speech is followed by a dithyrambic outburst from the Bacchae (in Ian Johnston’s translation):
The land flows with milk,
the land flows with wine,
the land flows with honey from the bees.
He holds the torch high,
our leader, the Bacchic One… .
As he dances, he runs,
here and there,
rousing the stragglers,
stirring them with his cries,
thick hair rippling in the breeze.
Among the Maenads’ shouts
his voice reverberates:
“On Bacchants, on!
With the glitter of Tmolus,
which flows with gold,
chant songs to Dionysus,
to the loud beat of our drums.
Celebrate the god of joy
with your own joy,
with Phrygian cries and shouts! …”
Then the bacchanalian woman
is filled with total joy—
like a foal in pasture
right beside her mother—
her swift feet skip in playful dance.
Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress himself like one of the Bacchae that he may pry into their sacred mysteries. Then, disguised as a stranger, Dionysus leads him to the mountains and delivers him into the hands of the Bacchae, who tear him limb from limb.
Along the way, there are transformations, reversals, and discontinuities that would be laughable in a play by a later tragedian such as O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. But as Charles Segal points out in Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae, Euripides constructs his play around a character who crosses the boundaries between god, man, and beast, between reality and imagination, art and madness. As Whitman will do centuries later, the playwright employs a poetics that not only permits logical contradictions but celebrates them.
The dithyrambic tradition continues in the six poetical books of the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations) and the prophetic poems of William Blake, such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Milton, and Jerusalem, as well as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (there is also a dithyrambic chorus in Murder in the Cathedral), Pound’s Cantos, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Ginsberg’s Howl, of course, is a contemporary dithyramb, as is the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the long poems of Diane Wakoski, and much of Anne Waldman (see Helping the Dreamer: Selected Poems 1966-1988). In fact, the most popular poetry of the moment is dithyrambic: the spoken-word pieces of such authors as African-American writer Paul Beatty, performance artist Tracie Morris, and the poets of the Nuyorican Café, as well as the Def Poetry Jam performances on television and the countless poetry slams taking place every night in clubs all over the world. And in addition to the poets, there are any number of dithyrambic prose writers: Melville, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Céline, Henry Miller, and the two novelists who influenced Ginsberg more than any poet—even Whitman—Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
Within the dithyrambic tradition, Whitman connects most solidly with the poets of the Old Testament. This is actually a subject I’ve spoken on excitedly to more than one skeptical businessman who has sat next to me at a terminal gate and, on finding out that I’m a poet, asks me why poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore. Over time, I tell them, most poetry hasn’t rhymed. Oh, sure, there were a few hundred years there, from roughly Elizabeth’s reign through Victoria’s, when a handful of highly accomplished poets wrote reams of accentual-syllabic verse with complex rhyme schemes, but for the greatest part of our common Western history, the poetry was, though quite formal, entirely unrhymed. Those were the days, I tell my listener. People paid careful attention to poetry back then and memorized great chunks of it. And almost everybody went to a poetry reading at least once a week. They called it church.
By this time the businessman has drifted to the bar or the newsstand, sorry he ever brought the topic up. However, should one of these unfortunates find himself seated next to me on the flight to Des Moines, say, or Winston-Salem, I go on: there were fifteen hundred years of Hebrew poetry, see, and then the heyday of the accentual-syllabic, and then Walt Whitman came along. What Whitman did was to reach over Tennyson’s shoulder, past Keats, past John Donne, and right around the left ear of a startled Sir Philip Sidney to retrieve that whole Hebrew tradition, update it, and make it American.
Hebrew poetry is shaped by the repetition not of sounds and stresses, but of ideas. And this parallelism takes three forms: it is synonymous when the original and the subsequent thoughts are identical, antithetical when the original and subsequent thoughts contrast, and synthetic when the one is developed or enriched by the other.
Here is an example of synonymous parallelism from Psalms cited in the Scofield Reference Bible introduction to the poetical books. Note how the second line says exactly what the first does, only in different language:
The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed,
A refuge in times of trouble.
Now here’s one from “Song of Myself”:
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
The second set of examples are instances of antithetical parallelism; again, the biblical example is from Psalms. The verse starts in one direction and then turns and goes the other way:
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
And this is a example of antithetical parallelism from “Song of Myself”:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
Finally, there is synthetic parallelism. The biblical illustration is from Job this time; the base line serves as a launching pad for lines that enrich and develop its meaning:
And thou shalt be secure, because here is hope;
Yea, thou shalt dig about thee, and thou shalt take thy rest in safety.
And because Whitman was especially fond of synthetic parallelism, I’ll give two examples, one from the beginning of “Song”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
And one from the end of the poem:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The businessman is now sleeping contentedly—lulled by the learned recitation, to be sure, but comforted, too, by the knowledge that I, a poet, too, am not the free-verse-spouting anarchist he may have thought I was, a wild-eyed despoiler of traditional poetic forms, but a laborer in the biblical vineyard. And all thanks to this what’s-his-name, this Whitman.
I Pick Out Some Low Person for My Dearest Friend
Yet to identify Whitman as a dithyrambic poet is to run the risk of a second false pigeonholing, one that, like the first—like most, if not all, mistaken categorizations—results from a partial knowledge of the subject. In everything from the deceptive looseness of his lines to his author’s photos in beard and slouch hat, Whitman seems like the original coffeehouse loony, a 19th-century member of the international wild man tradition who, as an outcast, bypasses and would be ashamed by any sort of parochial loyalty—indeed, any sort of loyalty to anything except the Gilded Age equivalents of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. (Not being familiar with the Bible, most of these miscategorizers would also fail to notice the intensely scriptural quality of Whitman’s poems.) Yet Whitman was as intensely parochial as he was cosmopolitan. One may say he was cosmopolitan because he was parochial; in the words of William Carlos Williams, “the poet who writes locally is the agent and maker of all culture.”
Part of this miscategorization stems from the assumption that today’s America and Whitman’s were the same, that if you, as a poet, are fed up with bourgeois values and mainstream politics, so was he. Whitman was fiercely pro-American, though the America he lived in is one that can scarcely be imagined today. One of the best guides to that distant country is David S. Reynold’s invaluable Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, which begins with an imagined evening in the 1850s at Pfaff’s, a restaurant and saloon on the corner of Broadway and Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Here, Bohemian America was in full sway: actors, artists, comedians, poets, and novelists shouted to one another, told jokes, spilled as much beer as they drank, and filled the air with cigar smoke. If Whitman (for he was a regular) and his friends seemed to cling desperately to the almost childish innocence of simpler times, says Reynolds, it was because they saw American society becoming increasingly rigid and commercialized, and so the merrymakers laughed and sang as they watched their world come to an end. America was saying good-bye to a largely agrarian world; the Industrial Revolution was moving into its maturity, with an attendant need for the increasingly complex and narrow roles played by workers-turned-specialists. In literature and the arts, now-familiar boundaries between high, middle-brow, and popular culture began to appear, becoming rigid after the Civil War. Earlier, Shakespeare was performed on the same stage as farces and minstrel shows; political rallies included poetry and musical performance; popular songs were derived from operatic arias, just as classical compositions incorporated folk music.
Now all of that was changing forever. To illustrate the change, Reynolds compares antebellum utopian life at Brook Farm, depicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), with the more hierarchical way of life described in Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward (1888). In the former, people live communally, enjoying poetry readings, concerts, and tableaux vivants along with their daily work, whereas in the latter, life is more rigidly ordered, with much of the work done by machines. Tellingly, much is made of the fact that the citizens of Bellamy’s utopia don’t have to go all the way down to some band shell in a park to hear a concert; instead, live music is piped into their apartments so they can enjoy it alone.
A phrase often used to described the patchwork-quilt country of the young Whitman (for he lived well into the age of homogenization) is “the old, weird America,” which is the title of Greil Marcus’s book on the so-called “Basement Tapes,” the recordings made by Bob Dylan and the Band in Saugerties, New York, in 1967. The tapes were not intended for commercial release (although Columbia Records released some of the songs belatedly), and this is Dylan’s most mysterious music, rooted historically in a culture that Dylan could only intuit, though Whitman knew it well. The old, weird America is a country of radical individuals, of street preachers, con men, hoboes, frontiersmen, wandering musicians, slaves on the run, Native American shamans and warriors and shape-shifters, folk heroes (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed) and villains (the James brothers, Billy the Kid). You get a sense of the old, weird America on board Melville’s Pequod, when Ishmael and the pagan Queequeg, who have spent the night cuddling happily in a boardinghouse bed, join a polyglot crew to serve maimed Ahab in his vindictive quest. You sense it as well in The Confidence-Man as the paddleboat halts in its watery path to let on one group of eccentrics as another disembarks, with hardly a person among them who he or she seems to be. In Civil War movies, combat units such as the Zouaves, in their faux-Algerian garb, are sometimes shown in uniforms so distinctive as to make impossible the distinction between friend and foe. In the name of efficiency, modern soldiers are all dressed alike—they can kill better that way.
As with the dithyrambic tradition, that of the old, weird America seems to be, as Shelley once said of poetry itself, “both center and circumference”: it’s there when you see it, yet even when it seems to be completely dead, it isn’t far away. Dithyrambs rise and fall throughout cultural history, and so do Bohemian airs. The literal Bohemia was a Central European kingdom where gypsies supposedly originated, and thus it came to stand for a vagabond culture operating outside of bourgeois society. But there will always be resistance to homogenization, and there will always be Bohemias, just as there always have been: in early-1900s New York, for example, where Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Sanger, and John Reed gathered in shabby saloons along with novelists, artists’ models, secretaries, and chess whizzes to argue about Nietzsche as they plowed through mounds of spaghetti and bratwurst and rejected the smug faith that culture was the domain of “the well-born and tasteful,” as Christine Stansell observes in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, and dug “channels between high and low culture, outsiders and insiders.”
The Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Movement, the psychedelic music of the hippie bands, the inchoate thrashings of the punks: each of these is a momentary revolt against the conformity of the times, yet each is a return of the ancient as well. Jonah Raskin opens his book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation with a description of the legendary October 7, 1955, reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in which he calls the “revolutionary individuality” of work by Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and the other readers “a quality bypassed in American poetry since the formulations of Whitman.” In those days of the Cold War, of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, of unprecedented commercial prosperity yet artistic sterility, “it was as though Dionysus had come back from the dead,” writes Raskin. In his own recollections, Ginsberg says he felt like a rabbi reading to his congregation when he read Howl, and Raskin notes that “indeed, there was something of the Old Testament prophet about him.”
Orgiastic Greek poets, prophets fed by crows, Ginsberg’s “saintly motorcyclists”: you pass each of these on a road that winds through America, one that at some times seems like an unpaved lane and at others like a superhighway. And if you drive the whole road, sooner or later you’re going to cross the Walt Whitman Bridge.
I Will Be More to You than to Any of the Rest
What you’ve considered this far, reader, is my attempt to distill some long-held assumptions: that often Whitman is falsely categorized (as American original, as cosmic loony) and that there are better pigeonholes for him (as dithyrambist, as citizen of “the old, weird America”). I’d written these preliminary paragraphs when I was diverted by other writing projects and had to take a break from this essay. One day I found myself facing an L.A.-to-Atlanta plane trip; since the in-flight movie was Scooby Doo 2 (shame on you, Delta!), I headed for the bookstore the morning of my trip, browsed the poetry section, and, suddenly recalling the essay I was eager to get back to, grabbed the 485-page Signet Classic Leaves of Grass, which is based on the ninth or “Death Bed” edition of 1892, the one authorized by Whitman as the final and complete version of his masterpiece. I had a long flight ahead of me, and I figured, how better to pass the time than by testing my assumptions about Whitman’s poetry?
It wasn’t long before I found myself regretting my disparaging comments on the homogenization of culture: the flight didn’t leave for four hours, and as I shuffled from gate to gate, watching my fellows prevail or melt down in every possible way, I felt the ghosts of the old, weird America rising around me, and so I sat on the floor and read and waited while the mechanics labored to streamline me to my destination.
I made two columns in my notebook, one headed “Dithyrambs” and the other “Old, Weird.” And the first, almost the only, note in my first column is: “How little there is of this!” Meaning not of dithyrambic lines (that’s all Whitman writes), but of the dithyrambic end, the ecstatic union with the god himself. The famous section 50 of “Song of Myself” reads:
There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me.
Wrench’d and sweaty—calm and cool then my body becomes;
I sleep—I sleep long.
I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol… .
Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.
Do you not see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—
it is Happiness.
All those dashes! And the lack of parallelism: how do “utterance” and “symbol” relate to “dictionary”? In the last stanza, he takes the don’t-you-get-it tone that has landed many a husband in the doghouse, the one that says, “Can’t you understand what I’m failing to explain to you?” The final line has a distinct uh-let’s-see quality. And the best the poet can come up with to describe the state of mystical union is “Happiness,” which he capitalizes so the reader will know it’s more important than mere garden-variety small-h “happiness.”
That’s the problem with achieving union. Harmony cannot be expressed because harmony means the sinking of the individual into the whole. But no self, no self-expression.
I’m being facetiously hard on Whitman in my previous paragraph: the seemingly unsuccessful fumblings of section 50 express with unabashed honesty the inability, not to achieve transcendence, but to talk about it. The only way for the poem to end is the way it does, with the lines “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” and “Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Joy consists of union; poetry consists of the search for union.
A short, seldom-cited poem called “Native Moments” lays out the whole dithyrambic urge in just twelve lines. Here it is:
Native moments—when you come upon me—ah you are here now,
Give me now libidinous joys only,
Give me the drench of my passions, give me life coarse and rank,
Today I go consort with Nature’s darlings, to-night too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights. I share the midnight orgies
of young men,
I dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers,
The echoes ring with our indecent calls, I pick out some low person
for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be one condemned by the others
for deeds done,
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunn’d persons, I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest.
Nothing happens in this poem—yet. As my students would say, “Party tonight!” As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” It’s not that Whitman fails to express union (“that word unsaid”)—no poet can, so what he describes instead and with sweaty, breathy accuracy is his failed quest to do so.
When it comes to the old, weird America, though, there’s no need to beat around the bush. The descriptions of that lost country are the best part of Whitman, and who wouldn’t rather read about hoboes and blacksmiths and boatmen and streetwalkers than failed attempts at mysticism? In sections 8–10 of “Song of Myself,” the poet flips the pages of an album of snapshots almost as fast as he can: he starts with a sleeping baby, two youngsters about to sneak off and have sex, a suicide who has just shot himself in the head. Then a trapper marries a Native American woman, and a runaway slave stops for a bath and a change of clothes before heading north. Section 11 (“Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore”) offers the best-known skinny-dipping scene in poetry, and then the poem really picks up speed: a butcher boy, bastard children, an amputee, a “quadroon” as well as a “half-breed,” an opium eater, and the president himself speed past, “a farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, / Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.”
But even though the poet conjures these disparate figures, he remains separate from them: “I am less the jolly one there,” he says in section 37, “and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.” In the short poem “Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?” Whitman issues a distinct caveat to his lector: “To begin with take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose” and “Do you think it is so easy to have me become your lover?” And see how emphatic he is about our essential solitariness in “A Song of the Rolling Earth”:
Each man to himself and each woman to herself …
Not one can acquire for another—not one,
Not one can grow for another—not one.
When Whitman is anthologized briefly, the poems chosen to stand for his entire body of work are usually ones like “There Was a Child Went Forth” and “The Sleepers,” three- to five-page pieces studded with hundreds of specific references to nature and humanity yet poems in which union is withheld; the latter poem in particular has an almost voyeuristic quality that serves as a counterweight to the image of the poet as shaman. Clearly, the anthologists know what they’re doing: these are not only first-rate poems but ones that are representative of what is most characteristic of Whitman’s work.
But by the time I’d sat in that terminal for half a day and then flown all the way from Los Angeles to Atlanta, I’d read all of Leaves of Grass, and the poem I kept coming back to was “Native Moments,” quoted above in its entirety. I tell my students that every literary work contains a built-in tool kit you can use to take that work apart and put it back together again—a key image, a set of repeated words, a quirky syntax—and that, in poetry, they should always look for the minor poem they can use to illuminate the major poems, like one of those pocket-sized Maglite flashlights that can throw a big beam hundreds of feet into the darkness. “Native Moments” is one such poem, which is why I have pillaged it for the title of and subtitles within this essay. The poem promises union, and it says the road to union is not through God or prayer or ritual but through someone “lawless, rude, illiterate,” a citizen of the old, weird America. And the poem withholds union, not because that state can’t be reached, but because it can’t be described.
I Will Be Your Poet
Last summer my wife and I drove up to Montgomery to see some plays at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which is located in a 266-acre cultural park that features a museum with paintings by Sargent, Hopper, and Rothko as well as the sculpture of local outsider artist Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas, who builds otherworldly creatures out of shock absorbers and other car parts. But the museum doesn’t have any work by another renegade artist from the area, a man named W. C. Rice, who maintains a “cross garden” on his property in nearby Prattville. I like to visit Mr. Rice from time to time and survey the hundreds of washers and dryers and air conditioner housings that surround his house, each of which is daubed with a saying like HELL IS HOT HOT HOT HOT and NO SEX WITH MEN ALOUD and NO ICE WATER IN HELL.
Talk about your old, weird America. As well as being an artist, W. C. Rice is a lay preacher, and, his antigay bias notwithstanding, I have the feeling that Whitman would have loved him. For one thing, Mr. Rice is severely diabetic, and Whitman’s soft spot for the ill and needy is legendary. Mr. Rice isn’t well today, so his wife asks me to step around to the side of the house and to chat with him through his bedroom window, and soon he’s telling me about some visitors he had the evening before. Mr. Rice is a sort of confessor to a lot of people in the area, and at about eleven o’clock, a woman and her daughter and the daughter’s friend came by and knocked, even though Mrs. Rice had already tacked up the cardboard sign that says it’s too late to visit and invites the visitor to return the next morning. But the three women were crying hysterically, so Mrs. Rice let them in, and it turns out that the woman’s husband, who’d been physically abusive to her their whole time together, had himself been beaten to death that very afternoon by a couple of toughs. What the woman wanted to know was whether Mr. Rice could say where her husband was at the very minute—specifically, was he between this world and heaven, and, if so, could she pray him up there, and if not, could Mr. Rice help? The answer, of course, was no. In Mr. Rice’s cosmology, either you’re saved or you’re not, and no amount of after-the-fact prayer can alter the state of your soul.
No wonder there is nothing by W. C. Rice in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. The local art mavens do a canny job of sanitizing the old, weird America; it’s okay for a busload of tourists to see a deer made out of shock absorbers by Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas, but you wouldn’t want visitors to pause before a Sargent heiress with her silk habiliments and upswept tresses and Grecian Urn–like guarantees of immortality and then stumble over a rusty Kelvinator on which someone had painted YOU WILL DIE in red house paint. No, the outskirts are the right place for Mr. Rice, not Art’s well-appointed townhouse.
Still, I love Montgomery and its Shakespeare festival. To stage Othello in a town whose other major cultural venue is a racetrack is nostalgic in the best possible way. Shakespeare was like Whitman in his embrace of all cultures. Just as it seems right to have a Rothko painting and a Charlie Lucas sculpture in the same museum or to find a gourmet restaurant and a barbecue joint next to each other in the same strip mall (we ate at both on adjacent days), so it made sense to watch Romeo and Juliet at the ASF on a Montgomery evening while James Brown played across town at Jubilee CityFest, the city’s outdoor music fair.
It’s easy to overlook how important Shakespeare was in Whitman’s America. In 1850, an anonymous correspondent for the Literary World wrote an essay on “Shakspeare [sic] in America” that reminds us how culturally vibrant the American interior was in those days. It’s easy but wrong to imagine that the hinterlands were populated mainly by grizzly bears, river pirates, and a few hardy pioneers, for as the writer notes, “we have the plays of Shakspeare every night in scores of theatres in city and country, packet ships, halls, hotels, steamboats.” In the early part of the 19th century, playacting was banned in Puritan Boston and scarcely tolerated in Philadelphia, but out where life was older and weirder, there was plenty of culture; in Louisville alone, there were 50 Shakespearean performances during the first half of the century.
Whitman’s America was ready for Shakespeare. It was the America also of other giants, of Twain and Melville, and the quintessential American book of them all is the biggest: the Bible. Leaves of Grass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, the books of the Old Testament: all of these say what Hamlet and King Lear do. (That Shakespeare’s gangs of “sweet wags” were so at home in the world of male friendship described by these authors is the subject of another essay.) Each of these works has a magnificent, vaulting architecture as well as a tragic if necessary incompleteness, and each says what Whitman says in his poem “The Unexpress’d,” another of those short, easily overlooked poems that illuminate the entirety of Leaves of Grass:
How dare one say it?
After the cycles, poems, singers, plays,
Vaunted Ionia’s, India’s—Homer, Shakspere—the long, long times,
thick dotted roads, areas,
The shining clusters and the Milky Way, of stars—Nature’s pulses reap’d,
All retrospective passions, heroes, war, love, adoration,
All ages’ plummets dropt to their utmost depths,
All human lives, throats, wishes, brains—all experiences’ utterance;
After the countless songs, or long or short, all tongues, all lands,
Still something not yet told in poesy’s voice or print—something lacking,
(Who knows? the best yet unexpress’d and lacking.)
Dante, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare: each is the national poet of his country. Yet each was a regular guy, in his way; Dante argued with shopkeepers, and while Shakespeare may have written immortal lines in the morning, he totaled up ticket sales at night. Far from being a dreamy bard, Whitman was more involved than any other American writer in the publication of his own work. He chose font styles and type sizes, selected paper, assisted in typesetting, designed bindings, wrote advertising copy, reviewed his own books anonymously, and sold them out of his house. He also managed his own image superbly. An avid seeker of the widest possible readership, he kept poems which stressed homosexual love and political subversiveness out of the public eye—until it was to his advantage to publish them, of course.
When he wasn’t pursuing the solitude that is a necessary condition for every writer and that he writes about wistfully in his own work, Whitman had an ability to make connections with others that is described best by Roy Morris, Jr., in The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. The war killed Whitman’s dream of a world founded on “the blissful love of comrades” and replaced it with the horror of brother killing brother. Deeply depressed, the poet lost himself in “an aimless round of bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising.” When he learned that his brother George had been wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed to find him; George’s injury was slight, but in the sufferings of other soldiers, Whitman found new purpose in life and, eventually, in poetry, culminating in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” To Morris, Whitman was “a great mothering sort of man” who visited the hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., for three years, bringing his charges ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens and paper. He wrote letters for those who could not, and more than a few died in his arms. “His long white beard, wine-colored suit, and bulging bag of presents gave him a decided resemblance to Santa Claus,” writes Morris. Small wonder that each time he left, many of the wounded soldiers, some of them still in their teens, called out, “Walt, Walt, come again!”
Those young soldiers would not have known that “Song of Myself” ends with the lines “If you want me again look for me . . .” and “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean.”
But Whitman does come again, in Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”; in T. R. Hummer’s Walt Whitman in Hell, in which Whitman strolls through 20th-century Manhattan; and in Larry Levis’s poem “Whitman:” where the awkward colon of the title suggests the unexpressible, “the unexpress’d.” Levis’s Whitman, like the one I’ve been writing about in this essay, is everywhere visible and yet never seen:
Across the counter at the beach concession stand,
I sell you hot dogs, Pepsis, cigarettes—
My blond hair long, greasy, & swept back
In a vain old ducktail, deliciously
Out of style.
And no one notices.
It wouldn’t bother me if Whitman got the treatment that Shakespeare has and became Everybody’s Favorite Poet, became a trademarked and Disneyfied character: that only makes poetry more accessible to a wider audience. And it hurts no one, because these old warhorses can take any amount of punishment dished out by the pop-culture industry and stay just as queer and lawless as they’ve always been. But it won’t happen. As a dithyrambic poet, Whitman is ecstatic. As a poet of the old, weird America, he is eccentric. Ex stasis, ex centrum: they amount to the same thing. Whitman is an easy poet to love, but the closer we get to him, the harder he is to see. We’ll never merge with Whitman, even though he invites us to; he tells us so in his poetry. Instead, we’ll pass right through him. We move from one part of the earth to another, and somebody says, “That was a pretty little bridge back there,” and we say, “What bridge?” And then we remember.