WALT & ME (NOW)
You know what I think is funny? That there was a point in my life I didn't know you. How weird. You are a permanent feature on my globe—like a continent.
My friend Ryland
When I question my 31-year old buddy, Ryland, regarding any feelings he has about Walt Whitman, he asks, “Didn't the gay community claim him as their own, like their property?
“Make him a gay saint or something?”
“Okay,” I say to my artistic brother, “I’m going to suggest something that might be challenged—not by you, but if I publish these newfound discoveries. When I read Whitman in my teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with the notion of his homosexuality.”
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress
does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman
“The is-he-or-isn’t-he? question has become a non-issue for me,” I continue. “And that is partly because the word ‘gay’ is always thrillingly in flux and never more so than in your generation and the current crop, a decade younger—sorry, Ryland—than you.
“Was Walt gay?’’ I ask myself, and Ryland, as I attempt to tease it out.
“I believe that he loved men with erotically charged emotion, to a degree likely uncommon among his peers,” I say. “I believe there was likely some heartfelt and soulful canoodling and maybe some randy petting taking places with his buddies as the sun went down. But was there all-out fucking?”
I’m certainly not arguing that rambunctious man-to-man anal sex wasn’t transpiring in 1855 (or 1755, for that matter) but did Walt’s sexual repertoire and rapture involve insertion? Part of me thinks not.
I present Ryland with my heretofore cloistered conclusion: “I surmise that the way he navigated his sexuality was approached with more guileless sensually than rough-and-tumble sexually.”
Ryland speaks up, way up, “This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, as things keep evolving, minute to minute. Does it all come down to insertion?”
“No, it’s all up to insertion,” I say, as archly as possible. “I get it, Ryland,” I say, wondering if I really do.
“The gay community, per se, needed that identification to get where we are today,” Ryland posits.
What Ryland says is golden. No matter the specific acts Whitman performed sexually, he gave us voluptuous insight to the very renegade construct of men loving men.
O the magnet! The flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to definiteness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
“To A Pupil” Walt Whitman
I had already begun publishing myself, as intimately as I possibly could, in hopes that my comrades did not die in vain. To have lived to be sixty-four years old, having adopted an African-American daughter, and continued to publish myself has to be credited, not only to the empathy-embracing acting teacher, but to Whitman.
Surely his message—as political as it was artistic—has guided me since my first reading (even though perhaps I infused it with more steamy sexuality than was intended). Whitman was also addressing—in all his poetry’s luxuriousness and sensuality—the art and diligence of achieving democracy in multi-layered specificity. My digestion of those tenets was more subliminal.
Was I aware of that when I was in my twenties, as a horny young gay men looking for someone to identify with? Doubtful. Nor did I likely see the full palette of Williams or Albee or Inge or Isherwood or Vidal; it was their sexuality that provided the portal to understanding something far greater. Call it spirit. Call it spiritual. Call it soul. Without those voices, on the printed page, staring at me with such empathy, I would not have survived to this ripe “old age.”
I believe it’s Whitman’s righteousness that I hold onto as a grown up man; his sense of being one of a crowd, and loving those members of the crowd—no matter what their status may be—is what makes me move forward with some sense of gracefulness and ease. Whitman’s empathy is his artistic achievement.
“The seminar,” I tell Ryland, “resulted in an overwhelming, almost otherworldly sense of soulfillment. Sorry, I mean ful-fillment.”
“No,” Ryland shoots back, without taking a beat, “You mean soul-fillment.”
“Did we just make up a word? I love it. I fucking love it: soulfillment.”
Whitman’s poetry often references “loafing on the grass” and our class found many meanings in this luxuriously enveloping image. Is he being thankful? Was he meditating? Was he finding comfort in nature? What he simply being present in his body/soul? Was he taking time to pay attention? Perhaps all of the above, all lessons that I know I can learn from.
The nourishment I received from my week in
is almost indescribable in its breadth. Not only
did I leave singing a song of myself, I left with a sense of being reinforced
in my mission as an artist and a human being. Santa
Yet I must share this information with my peers and my younger brethren, for it to resonate. I must publish myself—on the page and in person.
“Keep on loafing on the grass, bud.”
An email from Mitch
This is part five of a five-part series.
This piece is dedicated to Steve Schulte who made my second trip to
a reality. And
special thanks to Zo Harris for her editing skills. Santa Fe