Monday, August 20, 2007

Whitman: Why He Rocks

I have internet again! Everybody cheer!

Today's post is brought to you by the discussion I had with my cousin in Borders the other day about Whitman, the greatest embarrassment to conventional democracy in American history. (Somebody else said it first, possibly Norton. He imprints on me like that.) When I got home this afternoon and went to pick a poetry book, hey! there's Leaves of Grass right on my shelf. I have the new Norton Critical Edition, Amazon does not have it listed but it's lovely. Original pronouns, differing edition notes, more footnotes than you can shake a stick at, plus essays in the back.

Anyway. Poetry. If you didn't click the link as you should have done (quick! there's still time!), Whitman believed in democracy as upheld by the "love of comrades". The section of poems entitled "Calamus" is the most blatantly homoerotic, at least with the pronouns in their proper places, and while not as well known (see: not read in school) they are still quite powerful. Sometimes you find people who are determined to read these poems as purely "platonic"; for those people and others who have never seen the plant I provide this picture.

Here are two poems I like from "Calamus". My favorite is too long (When I Heard at the Close of the Day).

I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large that dents the water,
Without edifices of rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the love of comrades.


Recorders ages hence,
Come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior, I will tell you what to say of me,
Publish my name and hang up my picture of that of the tenderest lover,
The friend the lover's portrait, of whom his friend his lover was fondest,
Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him, and freely poured it forth,
Who often walk'd lonesome walks thinking of his dear friends, his lovers,
Who pensive away from the one he loved often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at night,
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he lov'd might secretly be indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another wandering hand in hand, they twain apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter'd the streets curved with his arm shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon him also.

And one more, in case you had begun to think everything was gung-ho hunky-dory for Walt:
Earth, my likeness,
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth,
For an athlete is enamour'd of me, and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.

P.S. I almost titled this post "Whitman: Meter Is For Pussies" but luckily decided against it.

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