'I Am the Poet of Reality'
Why America needs Walt Whitman now more than ever.
By Michael Judge
Today is the birthday of one of our country’s most celebrated poets, who came into this world on May 31, 1819, the second-born of eight children to Walter and Louisa Whitman. But perhaps the more significant birthday is July 4, 1855, the publication date of Leaves of Grass, when Walter Whitman Jr. from Brooklyn and Long Island suddenly became the great white-maned poet, Walt Whitman, “untamed” and “untranslatable,” sounding his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Robert Hass, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing years ago, describes Whitman before the publication of Leaves of Grass as a “mediocre half-educated journalist” who “suddenly produces the most amazing and original poem in the English language with ‘Song of Myself.’” Hass calls Whitman’s rebirth a “mystery,” and makes it sound as if the 36-year-old former printer’s apprentice and newspaperman went down to the crossroads—like blues legend Robert Johnson—struck a deal with the devil, and emerged the immortal poet of Leaves of Grass.
Some have indeed seen Whitman as having been overtaken by evil. When Leaves was first published, the all but forgotten 19th-century poet and critic Rufus W. Griswold denounced the sexual imagery and homoerotic undertones of Leaves, proclaiming that “it is impossible to imagine how any man's fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love.” More recently, contemporary poet CAConrad has condemned Whitman as an apologist for genocide and his poetry as “the underside of the rock that America has so beautifully constructed to fool the world.”
It’s true that Whitman’s belief in the boundlessness of man and nature, and the notion that Whitman shared with Ralph Waldo Emerson of the United States as “the greatest poem,” led to a full-on embrace of Manifest Destiny and the European settlers’ murderous march across the continent in the name of progress. There is no denying this, just as there is no denying that, despite seeing slavery as abhorrent, Whitman, at least in his private writings, shared some of the beliefs in social Darwinism that were in vogue after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859.
But to dismiss anybody wholesale is one of the crimes that Whitman helps us to transcend. In a 2013 interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa said such dismissal of his white—sometimes racist—predecessors “dehumanizes one who doesn’t have the capacity to embrace another. And that is what Whitman is all about in a certain sense. Yet, to embrace the positive elements of Whitman, one has to also be aware of the negative elements. But that’s true with each and every human being. Whitman is really a unique product of his own time. He responded to the obvious inequities in our country. … Many of us, not only the descendants of former slaves, are constantly defining and redefining who we are as human beings. Whitman was wrestling with himself, because, let’s face it, he is a product of that historical moment—a witness.”
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Author and critic Martin Klammer says Leaves “portrays both the suffering and the dignity of African Americans, seen in the present as victims of slave-catchers but envisioned in the future as partners with whites in an egalitarian democracy. In the ‘hounded slave’ episode from ‘Song of Myself’ (section 33), the speaker not only sympathizes with, but in fact identifies with, the fugitive slave: ‘I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.’ Whitman’s change of the pronoun from ‘He’ to ‘I’ some time earlier in his notebooks now signals a central moment in the poem as the speaker merges his identity with others in the world: ‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.’”
Whitman’s notebooks from the 1850s, the invaluable genesis of Leaves, reveals how central the poet’s struggle with the indiginity and brutality of slavery was to his life’s work. In what America’s preeminent Whitman scholar, Ed Folsom, calls “a wild attempt to voice the full range of selves in his contradictory nation,” Whitman writes in longhand, editing thoughtfully, adding and striking phrases:
I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves I am the poet of the body And I am I am the poet of the body And I am the poet of the soul I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters And I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.
Whitman did not turn from the moral failures of his age, even as he called on all Americans to recognize their common humanity. In these overheated times, when what divides us often seems greater than what unites us, we would do well to heed Whitman’s words, written in the preface to the first printing of Leaves of Grass—before the murder of his hero, Lincoln, before the death in war of more than 600,000 Americans, before the near-destruction of the union:
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and 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.
Tonight when I gather with friends over a drink to celebrate Walt’s birthday, I will read one of my favorite poems of his. It’s a fragment actually, from the same early notebook mentioned above, now simply referred to as “I Am the Poet”:
I am the poet of reality I say the earth is not an echo Nor man an apparition; But that all things seen are real, The witness and albic dawn of things equally real I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea And went down to reconnoitre there a long time, And bring back a report, And I understand that those are positive and dense every one And that what they seem to the child they are [And that the world is not a joke, Nor any part of it a sham].
It’s good to be reminded, especially now, of the contradictions of reality in all of us, including Whitman. And it’s even more important to remember how this supreme poet of reality teaches us to embrace these contradictions. For the world is not a joke, nor any part of it a sham.
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