WALT & ME (THEN)
As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth firm the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach, Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
“As Adam Early in the Morning” Walt Whitman
At our first seminar (
Classics), we were asked why we chose to spend a week deepening our
understanding of Walt Whitman. St. John’s
The answers ranged from “I know very little about poetry in general” to “I know virtually nothing about Whitman.”
“I read ‘To a Stranger’ when I was in my late teens or early twenties,” I said, “and it remains my favorite poem of all time.”
For a young man on the cusp of embracing his sexuality, it was as if Whitman was whispering into my ear while strands of his white-white beard tickled my neck. His poetry allowed me to embrace my queerness. It often made me hard. Walt was not only a poet; he was one of my first sex partners.
As a high school kid, I had been bullied. I was ostensibly popular, starred in all the school plays, even had girlfriends. But none of that mattered to a group of homophobic hooligans who had labeled me (rightly so) a “queer,” a queer to be thrown into the locker room shower in the middle of the day and mercilessly kicked.
Is it any wonder than Whitman soothed my battered body/soul?
As life unfolded, I would learn that Whitman was gay, wasn’t gay, had to be gay, couldn’t have been gay, was out and proud, was in the closet. I also learned that Whitman indeed celebrated male physicality but that this recurring theme was only a fraction of his expansive palette. And Whitman’s celebration of the body was inextricably bound to his celebration of the soul; in fact, the two are, in Whitmanese, inseparable.
And as our initial seminar revealed, the manifold parts of Whitman poetic palette extended far beyond those of his (or anyone else’s) body.
Democracy, for instance is paramount to Whitman’s voice. In fact, he considered the words “
and “democracy” interchangeable. And it is, Whitman felt, the duty of the poet
to identify our democratic impulses and nourish them. “The United States
themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he said in Preface 1855 –Leaves of Grass, First Edition. America
We are not better than or greater than anyone—whether you’re eating at the Russian Tea Room or shopping at the 99 Cents Store. You deserve equal treatment, respect and—yes—love. That expression of intimate identification, in my opinion, can be as simple as a smile or as charged as offering someone a few bucks with no strings attached. Do these random acts of kindness feed the soul? You betcha.
And where is the soul? Is it floating outside of our body, encircling the crown of our head, like a halo? Or is it inside our body, snuggling up against our heart? Maybe it is in closer proximity to our brain? Our sexual organs? Maybe it has the ability to traverse at will.
My classmates were a fascinating assemblage of personalities. There were two undergraduates who were attending
both with a sense of the world—and their place in it—that extended far beyond
their years. There was one grand woman, likely in her eighties, who spoke with
such dignified and good-natured gravitas that everyone in the room become
instantly entranced by her every utterance. Then there was the lawyer in all
his quiet yet brilliant thoughtfulness and the judge who spoke through the
prism of fairness. St. John’s
Wendy, one of my favorite classmates, was as open and as curious as a newborn; that is not to imply a lack of insight or intellect. Rather, it is to her credit to be able to process chunks of information that may have not previously been part of her lexicon, approaching them with a willingness to alter her perception.
Among my peers, I was the least educated, likely the poorest, and probably the loudest.
And I love Walt with all my heart.
I also love Mitch—there, I said it—a fellow student.
This is part one of a five-part series.