Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thinking of Walt Whitman

Whitman photographed late in life, at his home in Camden by artist Thomas Eakins

Walt Whitman's 190th birthday was yesterday, May 31. Whitman was city-born and city-bred, apprenticed to a printer, made his living largely by working in publishing and the newspaper business. He lived many years in Brooklyn, and later in Washington, D.C, and ended his life in his home in Camden, NJ.

Yet Whitman is also the poet of the open road. His multitudes include those who live in the countryside as well as the city. His poems extol the open air, the beauty and virtue of the country life. He encompasses all of North America in one of his famous lists in his poems, in which he says how he is in all these places, and has traveled in person to many of them. I feel this directly for myself: I've now traveled to many places in North America, enough to have a feel for all its varied climates and terrains, its open lands and various kinds of people. It's a big continent, and I'm not done exploring it—or making photographs of its beauty—but I feel as though Whitman is a fellow-traveler, a road-companion, whenever I journey off on another distance-eating roadtrip.

One section of Song of Myself is a set-piece of young men bathing in a stream in the countryside. The nude bathers are observed by a young woman, who caresses them with her gaze as though she physically moved among them:

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,
they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

It's not hard to imagine that the young woman in the poem is standing in for Whitman himself: as observer, as viewpoint character for the moment, as one whose eyes caress, and who would touch also with fingers. Why did Whitman present himself as a woman in the poem in this way? It is one common way gay that writers have always coded their artistic work: by presenting it as being heterosexual, by simply flipping gender. And rather than using the personal "I" as he does in so much of Song of Myself, the poet also codes a third-person viewpoint into this watching woman, thus stepping further back into coded acceptable literary norms. Yet I also think of the gender-blending that gay men experience in themselves: the mix of masculine and feminine aspects of self in their spirit and flesh alike. This section of poetry was the direct inspiration for Thomas Eakins' well-known painting The Swimming Hole.

Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole (1885)

One edition I own of Whitman's Complete Poems is decorated with this painting on its front cover.

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.

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.

And there remain mysteries, perhaps visionary, even mystical parts of life and art, in Whitman's life and work:

One of the parts of Whitman's life-story that I have been thinking recently about was his visit to Louisiana, sometime before ora round 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, especially in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, the most expansive, sexually-inclusive edition of the several that Whitman published in his lifetime. 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. I want to live. I want to live on the open road, and return to my small town, as I have done before, changed utterly by my travels, yet still myself, to return to my small-town homeplace enriched by experience, enriched by wisdom in describing experience such as is found in Whitman's most homoerotic poems.

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