“He was a vagabond, a reprobate, and his poems contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless that their parallel in literature could hardly be found with the author’s name attached. For his fame he has to thank those bestially sensual pieces which first drew him to the attention of all the pruriency of America. He is morally insane and incapable of distinguishing good and evil, virtue and crime.”
Chastisement or high praise? When propounded by Max Nordau in the late 19th Century, the old snoot certainly intended the former; but I am comfortably sure that the inimitable Walt Whitman would have (had he been alive to do so) accepted the invective as congratulation for his success.
On this, his birthday, I am mindful of Whitman’s sense of posterity—not of the hereditary sort, but of the sort that carries a bloodline of courageous creation to future poets and readers of poetry. He had an eerie knack for situating himself not only in historical context but in a sort of ghostly futurity cohabitant with his reader. In a favorite poem of mine, that mixture reads thusly:
“Full of life now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the eighty-third year of the States,
To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,
To you yet unborn these, seeking you.
“When you read these I that was visible am become invisible
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)”
One almost feels the poet’s breath on her neck as she reads. While I don’t know how literally he meant these sentiments, it is clear that he had an uncanny awareness of the flexibility of time.
I am pleased to find similar insights elsewhere in my Romantics to whom I cling, almost inexcusably, like rugged crosses. Wordsworth writes of a “serene and blessed mood” by which he is transported from “this corporeal frame” into an apprehension of a life unbounded by linear chronology.* Shelley’s investment in the romantic teleology that relies on the transcendent sublime is, to me, unparalleled in literature. To wit, in his “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley implores that “wild spirit” to “drive [his] dead thoughts over the universe/ like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!”*
In the annexes to his Leaves of Grass, Whitman contemplates his legacy with a more cautious but no less prophetic eye—like Coleridge from his lime-tree bower* and Wordsworth when recollecting his childhood*. The aging Whitman considers his life—the living of it and its concomitant verses—as a sort of fertilizer of perpetuity, something of him that outlasts his particular time, place, and mass to enrich the lives and verses of subsequent (all and any who so choose) generations. He recognizes (and rues, he’s human, yes?) in his waning years, the relative frailty of his once mighty existence. However, just as soon as he laments his “last lingering sparse leaves,” he reiterates his earlier conviction that his poems are “Not meagre, latent boughs alone” but are made of the stuff that will engender “some future spring, some summer—bursting forth.”*
Last year, I wrote a poem for Whitman, assuming as I do that he is breathing on my neck, a response to some of these latter sentiments. Because, while I appreciate his unending career, I think he should save some sparse vitality for himself. But who am I? Just a suggester. Merely a mimicker—as you’ll detect in the following piece.
Kronos Devouring One of His Children*
And discover if there is anything to be got at last for the said grim
and time-bang’d conch . . . –Walt Whitman
Why spend every last lingering drop of sweat and sperm
On us? Who are we
That you should? Retire. Rest.
America, so vast, can hide you somewhere
In one of her dripping caverns.
Surely, as you strode—a Kong amongst men, hirsute
In your birthday attire, testicular—you must
Have straddled some tucked-away dell.
Go back there. Leave no note. Soak your calluses
In the hot-pool of a secret spring.
I saw you as a boy (me as one, not you—though
One could make an argument) in
A bustling bough of oak leaves. I sent you back your acorns.
We had a catch, Bearded Father.
Think gymnastic, think electric, think without thought—revisit
Those stars we sat beneath without constellating
Or enumerating, just sat and shared the coming-
Unsown quilt, hands warm in between
Each other’s calves and hamstrings.
We felt the minutest dust of meteors. Scalps tingled.
Our poems co-exist.
I smudge the yellowing of mine as I thumb the wet-ink of yours.
See, Manhattan’s felled erections, the farmers sitting on their ploughs, the dust swirling,
See, democracy in infancy again, Washington aggrandizing, envy not of youth but toys,
See, the shrugged and hobbled soldiers, the mother’s sapped breasts, the crutched and caned and clinically insane, the best of our median generation drooling and shocked, and now my generation slumming in the same streets though they have been swept and sanitized and littered with shops full of the antique and dainty.
See, the smog.
Why dribble your last? We are doused, dripping.
Let linger your halcyon thoughts;
Let wax again the apples, the gourds, the new
Moon, the buffalo plains,
The lips of innocents and their attendant juices.
Retire. Rest. Lose your head.