Walt Whitman In Our Time
By Stuart Mitchner
It avails not, neither time or place; distance avails not. I am with you, men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.
—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Facing the approach of a “grim milestone” with “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000” on the eve of Memorial Day 2020, the editors of Sunday’s New York Times produced a front page Walt Whitman himself might have conceived.
It’s as though one of the editors discussing how to convey “the vastness and variety of lives lost” had been reading Leaves of Grass. You might almost think Whitman had suggested the wording of the secondary head, “They Were Not Simply Numbers on a List. They were Us,” before putting the weight of his spirit behind the idea of culling “vivid passages” from coronavirus death notices of hundreds of newspapers around the country. No wonder the resulting inventory — “the conductor with the most amazing ear, the grandmother with the easy laugh, the entrepreneur and adventurer” — seems to echo Whitman’s “pure contralto singing in the organ loft, the carpenter dressing his plank, the connoisseur peering along the exhibition gallery.”
Always With Us
America’s poet is always with us on Memorial Day. Who else could have imagined, celebrated, or publicized such an event? He had a stake in it long before the ceremonial occasion was officially relocated from May 30 to the last Monday in May; in fact, he was there a century and a half before, having been born on the last Sunday in May 1819. He makes his generation-transcending presence vividly felt in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where time or place or distance “avails not,” and the “similitudes of the past and those of the future” are as “glories strung like beads” on his “smallest sights and hearings.”
In section 18 of Song of Myself, Whitman organizes the requisite parade: “With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,/ I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons…. I beat and pound for the dead, / I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.”
In the early hours of the last Monday of May 1865, as recounted in Specimen Days, Whitman kept a bedside vigil with a 19-year-old “Baltimorean of the 2nd Maryland, southern,” whose right leg had been amputated. “Evidently very intelligent and well bred — very affectionate — held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave. As I was lingering, soothing him in his pain, he says to me suddenly, ‘I hardly think you know who I am — I don’t wish to impose upon you — I am a rebel soldier.’ I said I did not know that, but it made no difference.” Whitman visited him daily for about two weeks “while he lived (death had mark’d him, and he was quite alone)” and “loved him much, always kiss’d him, and he did me. In an adjoining ward I found his brother, an officer of rank, a Union soldier, a brave and religious man” from the “sixth Maryland infantry, Sixth corps, wounded in one of the engagements at Petersburgh, April 2 — linger’d, suffer’d much, died in Brooklyn, Aug. 20, ‘65. It was in the same battle both were hit. One was a strong Unionist, the other Secesh; both fought on their respective sides, both badly wounded, and both brought together here after a separation of four years. Each died for his cause.”
A Birthday Marathon
I’ve been reading Song of Myself with Sunday’s upcoming 17th annual marathon birthday event in mind, the first global online version of Time to Yawp, the mass reading organized by NYU Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener and previously held at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Now that readers have been assigned each of the 52 sections, I can’t help thinking of the challenges in phrasing and point of view presented by certain lines, for example those that might have provoked this response from the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me more desirous to read him and more determined I will not.”
Numerous passages in Section 33 of Song of Myself remind me of T.S. Eliot’s line about the poetry of John Donne, in which “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Time to Yawp readers have had to contend with panthers and rattlesnakes, bears and alligators, bats and flies, whales and sharks, plus the “crashing trip-hammers” of the “press rolling its cylinders” close to the heart of the former printer and newspaper man who imagines “Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil over my countenance,” and in the space of two lines pivots to “enjoying picnics or jigs or a good game of base-ball.” Skip a page ahead and Niagara’s giant is looking “at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon, flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass” like a child dreaming of sweets. A few lines later, the reader is swept up with the poet in a “crowd as eager and fickle as any, / Hot toward one I hate, ready in my madness to knife him,” next thing you know he’s walking “the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle God by my side, / Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars.”
And only now, after reading through four and a half pages of these time-and-space defying twists and turns, do I come to the collision of extremes that first set me thinking about the challenges facing the designated reader at Sunday’s marathon. Imagine going from “I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself; / I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips” to “My voice is the wife’s voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs; / They fetch my man’s body up, dripping and drown’d.” Pause, take a breath, think Memorial Day and read, “I understand the large hearts of heroes, / The courage of present times and all times.”
These States 2020
Celebrating Memorial Day and Whitman’s bicentenary a year ago, I commented on how the president was bringing Washington’s unsavory “mixture of awful consternation” to a boil with the help of his sous chef, the attorney general.
Now look where we are. Could even Whitman have foreseen a combination as formidable as the pandemic and this president? Among the “Gathered Leaves” at the back of the 1900 McKay edition (and grouped under the head “Rejected Poems” in the Heritage Press reprint) is the furious, provocative “Respondez!” First published in the 1856 edition of Leaves under the title “Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness,” it was retitled in 1867, after the war, and relegated to the back of the book in 1876. What follows is a sampling of lines that have an eerie resonance in this time of masks and misinformation:
“Let every one answer! let those who sleep be waked! let none evade! / Must we still go on with our affectations and sneaking?”
“Let faces and theories be turn’d inside out! Let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!”
“Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence, lust, be taken for granted above all! let writers, judges, governments, households, religions, philosophies, take such for granted above all!”
“Let there be wealthy and immense cities — but still through any of them, not a single poet, savior, knower, lover!”
“Let books take the place of trees, animals, rivers, clouds!”
“Let the reflections of the things of the world be studied in mirrors! let the things themselves still continue unstudied!”
Rough and Rowdy
Listening again to Bob Dylan’s “I Contain Multitudes,” from his forthcoming album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, I’m convinced he could do full sinister justice to the darkerst and most problematic lines in Leaves of Grass. In his song, “I Contain Multitudes,” he could be auditioning for a more intimate, melodious, one-man Whitman marathon. He has the right voice and the right approach, having found a seasoned middle ground between singing and speaking during these post-millennium decades. Then there’s the Whitmanesque title of Dylan’s new record, set for a June 19 release. In a February 1856 letter quoted in Gay Wilson Allen and Guy Folsom’s Walt Whitman and the World, Whitman is introduced to British man-of-letters Leigh Hunt as “a rough — a rowdy, who has given to the world the most original book ever written.”
I’ve been reading Whitman in three different editions, all of them open on my desk: the Mosher facsimile of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, the delicate India paper 1900 pocket-sized David McKay with the fold-out facsimile of Walt’s biographical note, and my father’s marked-up copy of the circa 1944 Heritage Press reprint illustrated by Rockwell Kent. My father’s copy means the most to me because it was a visible presence everywhere we lived when I was growing up. The over-the-top jacket blurb (“Listen World!” by Elsie Robinson) indicates the publisher’s strategy for marketing a “forbidden book” by “this man who dared to live real” and “wrote about men as they are. Whereupon he was promptly snubbed by all the Nice People and barred from the U.S. mails.”
The Greatest Poem
Nine years ago (Town Topics, Sept. 7, 2011), I wrote about another historic New York Times project, Portraits: 9/11/01 (Times Books/Holt 2002), which then-executive-editor Howell Raines introduced by way of Whitman’s claim that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
After reading the stories and looking at the faces of New Yorkers in what Raines calls 9/11’s “democracy of death,” I was reminded once again of Specimen Days, where Walt celebrates “clear eyes that look straight at you, a singular combination of reticence and self-possession … surely beyond anywhere else upon earth.” For Walt, his “daily contact and rapport” with New York’s “myriad people” provides “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”
The “Song of Myself” Marathon will take place on Sunday, May 31, from 1 to 4 p.m. The reading can be watched live on YouTube. For more information, visit the Whitman Initiative website: http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org.