A few years ago, I was privileged to read at the Something Old, Something New (Jersey) 350th birthday celebration at the Hoboken Historical Museum. Curated by CavanKerry poets, Teresa Carson and Danny Shot, the program included several contemporary poets reading the work of one of New Jersey’s great poetry masters—William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg to name a few.
I was delighted to be assigned Whitman. He’s my personal Great. I’m hard pressed to say what I love more about him—his wildly generous soul or his wildly generous poems. It’s often said that Whitman’s greatest gift to us is his creation of a grand mythical figure whose voice he sings. Loudly and openly. He is Everyman. He is every cell in every body. He is the God Man—and he challenges us to the same.
When I think of all we have inherited from him—and the list is long, the most important to me as a poet and person, is that he gives us permission. Permission as writers, permissions as people. To glory in who we are. Unadulterated, unmasked, unadorned. And we revel in this counsel. As writers we want to be creative, honest, imaginative and original, but we have barriers to that freedom. We also want to attract readers and praise; we want to be good poets, but we’re often held back by what we perceive of as the unseemliness of our experience, our feelings and our motives. We think we have to turn away from who we are in order to create selves that are worthy of this elevated art. Regrettably, we believe poetry is holier than we are, so we must make ourselves worthy to write it.
Whitman debunks that. Poetry is not better than him; it is him. It is his bowels, his brain, his bicycle, his Brooklyn Bridge, his lilacs, wounded soldiers, lovers, trees. Not that he wasn’t as greedy for recognition as the rest of us, but he refuses to relinquish originality –by writing ‘inside’ the lines –to get it. Likewise, he doesn’t aspire to be worthy. He is worthy. While we often think of humility as a desirable trait in the person or poet, Whitman is anything but. Yes, he was vulnerable and often vacillated between approval and rejection of his more successful contemporaries (Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow…) and wanted at least to be counted among them–if not seen as their superior–but he was also steadfast in his commitment to his universe and subject matter–the whole world of what it is to be human. The whole world of what it was to be Whitman.
He takes on sex, heterosexual and homosexual, and writes proudly and abundantly of its pleasures capturing them in the most exquisite language and line. He elaborates on the wildly feral magic of love and wrote generously of it. He glories in the organs of the body as much as the lilies of the field. For him, there is no subject that isn’t appropriate fodder for poetry. In terms of craft, he blows out the more traditional poetry line, stretching it to the end of the page and then some—one wonders how far he’d have carried it if he were not bound by something as trite as paper size. He refuses to allow himself or his readers to take a back seat to life—he’s audacious, grandiose, honest, narcissistic, courageous, hedonistic, spiritual and compassionate without apology; in fact, he glories in his greatness—the greatness we all share as humans. He calls on us to be courageous—to break out of convention, to give ourselves over to our imaginations and our bodies –both so ready to create for us provided we keep dogma and judgment away. As did he. Having known him, my poems have never been the same—the nuns would definitely disapprove. Whitman is our mentor, our Everyman Poet challenging us to strip naked each time we sit down to write —be as big as we are, as raw as we are and can be. I happily bow to his wisdom.
Wherever you are, Walt, I trust you’re having one hilarious, outrageous, glorious day! Happy Birthday, Dear Friend, thanks for all the gifts.