I believe my last post was really inadequate for Walt Whitman’s birthday. I was clearly too preoccupied with my own struggles as a teacher finishing up the year to really do service to this important date. Whitman is my hero; Whitman is the voice of contemporary American poetry. This is not to downplay the importance of, say, his contemporary Emily Dickinson who has also shaped American poetry in profound ways. But Whitman embodies the democratic voice, the inclusive, egalitarian voice that I believe American and its poetry strive for. Here is a section of his classic (to my mind his most important) poem, “Song of Myself”:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin
leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger,
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving
their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands
and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)
Yes, I’ve heard it all before, the egotism that people hear in Whitman, both the audacity to publish and publicize his own work (yes, it’s true, he was known to write his own reviews) but more importantly to write an epic poem titled “Song of Myself.” There is certainly a strain of American imperialism at play here, but the self at stake is multiple and moves on many levels: Walt Whitman, America, the Globe, the Cosmos. His “self” reaches out to include everything, to speak the voice of a nation struggling for its own identity, a multitude. This is not just Walt Whitman egotism (though clearly he knew, as de Tocqueville had earlier suggested, that the American people would respond most viscerally to an art grounded in individualist sensibilities) but a poetry of democracy. At another point, he states his democratic poetics and politics:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Whitman did not even believe that he was writing poems, but writing a language which would allow poetry to happen. Poetry was what happened after people read his work; democracy was what happened in the people’s hands, not in some authority’s. His poetics foregrounded the reader, the response, in a way that mirrored a political belief in the people: authority can only be invested in the people, not in any predetermined authority.
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Yes, contact! Whitman’s is a poetics of contact, of intimacy even in the midst of such expansive inclusion. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Whitman opened up American verse to a new language, one that could be as large, as messy, as complicated as the new nation:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Here is a poetry as unwieldy as the idea of democracy itself. Yes, I will say it again: Whitman is my hero. Yesterday, he would have been 190. I constantly wonder what he would have seen in the current state of affairs here in America. I’m pretty sure that he would have found more good in it than I can generally find.
But let’s not lose another important birthday in Whitman’s wake. Saturday, May 30, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin David Goodman, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. Besides being an amazing composer and musician himself, his bands over the years launched the careers of some of our most important jazz musicians such as Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Christian. He was also incredibly influential in his move to integrate American music, hiring African-American musicians when they weren’t allowed to share the same stage. I believe Goodman had a profound influence on an integrated American society. For any Goodman tribute, just start with his 1936 version of Louis Prima’s classic Sing, Sing, Sing. From there you can go anywhere (or, like me, you might just want to listen to it again).