the long road to whitman
Reading Kwame’s confession a couple days ago concerning Whitman made me think of my own meandering path towards the Jolly Big Fellow. When I was in my early twenties, I resisted Old Graybeard, because I didn’t find the wild imagery on a line-by-line basis that I coveted in those days. In fact, I found Old Graybeard kind of boring; I couldn’t figure out what all the hoopla was about—the language seemed too direct and bloated, the sentiments too over-the-top and obvious. Little did I know then that the limitations were inside me, and not the text. Five years ago I returned to Song of Myself and was sliced up into little pieces. Suddenly I was able to see the bigger picture, the democracy of his vision, how the scope of the project was extremely imaginative, that he was using the self as a poetic vehicle, creating a persona who shared his name, expanding way beyond himself.
I was glad to see Kwame point out the friction between Whitman the human being and Whitman the poet. That’s something I’ve thought of a bunch, and recently tried approaching in a poem. One example of this friction is in the line (paraphrased) about “you will find me under your boot soles”, which gives this image of the speaker’s ashes being sprinkled across the earth and organically rising up in the form of grass blades, but in real life Whitman’s ashes were not scattered; he squirreled away money towards the end so he could purchase a tomb in a picturesque hillside in a New Jersey cemetery.
Now I see that even when I was shunning Whitman in my twenties, his shadow was still all over my fingers via poets that were influenced by him: Ginsberg (who I also partially shunned on the surface for a while) and William Carlos Williams among others, and also via international writers, like Tomaz Salamun and Neruda. That’s always a funny thing—when traces of a US writer get refracted back via poets from other countries. This week, for one of my classes (The Visceral I), we read the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms. I’d forgotten what a huge influence Whitman had been on Pessoa (and the Sensationist Alberto Caeiro and the melancholy Alvaro de Campos). I love how Pessoa throws our ideas of self into a grinder, and how committed he was to his project.
Last spring at Sarah Lawrence we had a live reading of Song of Myself, all 52 sections, read by a mixture of professors (from a variety of disciplines), mfa students, and undergrads. It was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever been a part of. I felt like we lived the poem together. We used three readers trading off passages to pull off the 7-page section (33).There were ebbs and flows, emotional crescendos. Yes, it took nearly three hours, but we were transformed by the experience, something had been shared.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...