Letters at 3AM

Look for me under your boot-soles

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

What was all that wistful, reverent, carefully even-handed verbiage in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass? Op-eds, scholarly papers – genteel exercises in missing-the-point. Would wild Walt Whitman have wept, shrieked, or laughed? All three, probably, at the same time. No commemoration that reached my eyes shared the spirit of Whitman's instructions to his poem's readers, words he lived as well as wrote:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

It's 1855. Almost all poems rhyme, measured carefully to stanzas with precise rhythm. To write of sensuality is taboo (unless, like Keats, you drape your language so scrumptiously that one can barely notice the body beneath the gown). American poetry kowtows to Europe, except for this guy from Brooklyn. He comes from a crazy family, two siblings are insane, one's retarded. He leaves school at age 11, goes to work as an office boy, then a printer and newspaperman, educating himself, founding his own newspapers in his 20s, writing against slavery. Who dares imagine the intensity of his inner life all this time, a fierce, generous aliveness that bursts into Leaves of Grass?

His poem not so much breaks as ignores and abolishes every literary and social rule in Western literature. I celebrate myself is his first line, declaring that he is the test of what he sings. The third line, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. To Whitman, liberty and democracy are physical facts, our atoms shared by all. Line 11: I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,/ I am mad for [the air] to be in contact with me – you're halfway down the first page and already he's rolling around bare-assed in the grass!

That's the guy we're supposed to follow into this poem! He's basing his authority as a poet on his willingness to behave this way. He admits it's "mad" and doesn't care. By the second page he lets you know – and repeats many times – that you're on your own in his poem. You shall no longer take things at second or third hand ... nor look through the eyes of the dead ... nor feed on the specters of books,/ You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,/ You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself. No snooty literary superiority. He doesn't want your company unless you're willing to think for yourself and be his equal. And he's assuming you can do that! Which is the alchemy of his poetry: his consistent friendly assertion that, if he can do it, so can you. He dares you.

I and this mystery here we stand. Surrounded by the unknowable, made of the unknowable, taking nothing for granted ... let's party. I see, dance, laugh, sing. No serious writer had written openly of sex, but Whitman, about four pages into his poem, writes frankly, exquisitely: I mind how we lay in June ... / You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,/ And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,/ And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet. Is he with a man or a woman? It's not clear, and he doesn't want it to be. He's with you, whoever you are and whenever you're ready. No proposal of marriage. Instead, an invitation to the dance.

A child said, What is the grass? ... / How could I answer the child? ... I do not know what it is any more than he. And so he calls his poem "Leaves of Grass." As he writes elsewhere, science can describe reality but that doesn't mean science knows what reality is. Neither does he. Except the grass may be the uncut hair of graves ... And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier. He is the greatest poet of death because the fact of death makes him gasp with wonder. And even when he is old, struck down by strokes, all but helpless, he will continue to praise the body and praise death, out of his stubborn allegiance to, and celebration of, what is.

To a culture terrified of sex he says, "What need be afraid of the merge?/ Undrape ... you are not guilty to me." It's probably not possible, 150 years later, to gauge the courage and explosiveness of such lines. (Emily Dickinson, in a letter, commented that "Mr. Whitman" was not discussed by respectable persons.) And, in case you missed it, he states outright: Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. No, you and I simply can not imagine how that sentence resonated in 1855.

Whitman sings long Homeric lists of occupations, events, pastimes, people, everyone's included in his vision, every laborer and every dreg. The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just-opened lips,/ The prostitute drags her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck. Her pimpled neck. He doesn't romanticize. He sees. He invites you to see. But he tells you, straight out, that his poem is for the wicked just the same as the righteous ... I make appointments with all,/ I will not have a single person slighted or left away,/ The kept woman and sponger and thief are hereby invited ... the heavy-lipped slave is invited ... the venerealee is invited... / There shall be no difference between them and the rest. He places them on your level and he places you on their level. (Are you sure you want that?) All are invited to the party. If you're too fastidious you can dis-invite yourself, that's your choice. Whitman whispers in your ear anyway: This hour I tell things in confidence./ I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.

His first edition is unsigned. Just a lithograph of his portrait, hat cocked, hand on hip, looking like he's about to speak. Only midway in his poem does he reveal his name: Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos,/ Disorderly fleshy and sensual ... eating drinking and breeding,/ No sentimentalist ... Whoever degrades another degrades me .../ Through me forbidden voices,/ Voices of sexes and lusts ... voices veiled, and I remove the veil.

Some 120 years before equal-opportunity usages became standard American speech, while feminists were still using "he" and "man" as general pronouns for "humanity," Walt Whitman insisted on the usage "man or woman," "him or her," always. He declared it is as great to be a woman as it is to be a man nearly 70 years before American women could vote.

He wrote of a jig or a good game of baseball and he wrote of God. He wrote, Agonies are one of my changes of garments,/ I do not ask the wounded person how he feels ... I myself become the wounded person. He lived that. In the Civil War, with more soldiers dying of sickness than on the battlefield, he volunteered as a nurse – a contagious occupation. Risked death to comfort the dying. He didn't just write about "the wounded person," he engaged the wounded person.

That's what Walt Whitman was about: risking all. Mystic and sensual, idealistic and practical, intellectual and a Holy Fool – Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then ... I contradict myself. And don't idolize him: He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Within all that, he had a greater purpose: I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown. He made it clear that you, the reader, could expect no help if you accepted his invitations: Not I nor anyone else can travel that road for you,/ You must travel it for yourself. Yet it is not far ... it is within reach./ ... you must find out for yourself.

I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat. His barbaric yawp was an invitation to expand the very definition of "human being." He was sure we could, sure we would. If we had need of him, he told us where to find him: Look for me under your boot-soles, on the ground upon which we stand. He promised he'd wait ahead. I stop somewhere waiting for you – that is the last line of his poem, and he placed no period at the end of that sentence. It's an open-ended proposition. He expects us. Without a period, the poem never ends. We're expected to fulfill it.

Ready? end story

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Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, poetry

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