Walt Whitman. Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan
It sounds absurd for me to say that Walt Whitman saved my life, but it is true that at a particularly vulnerable period in my late twenties, my copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was one of a very small handful of things that kept me from taking a flying leap off the Golden Gate Bridge. I was about to turn thirty and I was in graduate school in San Francisco, but that was less a legitimate occupation than an artfully crafted cover story for what was really going on in my life, which was that I was a drunk who’d stopped drinking and hadn’t yet found anything to replace the drug that had gotten me through the first twenty-odd years of my life.
I went to class, I wrote papers, I taught my sections of comp, but really I was adrift. Anyone who has felt this way for any length of time knows that “adrift” isn’t a metaphor but a description of a physical fact. I would wake up in the middle of the night with the queasy sense that the bed I was in, the tatty little bedroom around me, the ground it all sat upon seemed strangely insubstantial. Temporary. Not to be trusted. Other nights I had dreams in which I simply ceased to exist. There I was, sitting in my parents’ living room or standing at the head of my classroom at school, screaming and screaming, but no one saw me, and worse, no one seemed to be particularly put out that I wasn’t there. The world went on its merry way as if I had never existed. Dreams like those made jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge sickeningly attractive. The fall would kill me, yes, but at least then I would be actually dead, at least then I would be missed.
It was during this time of profound personal crisis that I first read the famous opening lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease…observing a spear of summer grass.
I was doing a lot of leaning and loafing that year, but very little inviting of my soul. Like a lot of lost people, I assumed that my soul – “the other I am,” to use Whitman’s term for it – was the problem, and that inviting it too openly, too nakedly, would send me right over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. This, I think, was the magic of Walt Whitman for me. Here was a poet who seemed on intimate terms with the darkest, most secret side of himself, but who, instead of running from that scarifying Other, embraced it, even celebrated it. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” Whitman writes. But how? How to find worth in that which I wished only to throw off a bridge? I probably read “Song of Myself” half a dozen times during that long, ugly summer in San Francisco. I read every Whitman biography I could find, and picked the brain of every scholar of American literature foolish enough to attend his own office hours, but in the end the answer was as simple as it was counterintuitive. You cannot escape your malevolent Other. It exists, as integral a part of you as your eyes and lungs, and there’s nothing to do except embrace it, open yourself to it and listen.
“I believe in you my soul,” Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”:
the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, seventy-nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The publication date cannot have been accidental. Whitman was a journalist and a fierce believer in a united United States, and six years before the outbreak of the Civil War, with Kansas bleeding and the country riven by sectional strife, Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as, among other things, a sort of poetical pamphlet that could somehow sing the nation into unity.
Things didn’t work out that way, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Because he knew he would never find a legitimate publisher for such a strange book, Whitman published the first edition himself, setting much of the type on his own in a print shop at the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets in Brooklyn. The finished book is a marvel of enigmatic charm. The twelve poems, each of which fill many pages and make use of no traditional schemes of rhyme or meter, were untitled, and the title page makes no mention of an author, offering instead only an engraving of a young bearded man wearing a slouch hat and an insouciant expression, staring at the reader as if daring him or her to open the book. It is only much later, 499 lines into the first poem, that one hears of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,” who is, apparently, the all-seeing “I” of the poem, and maybe, too, its author.
If you have read Leaves of Grass for a high school or college course or from a copy you found at a bookstore or library, chances are you have not read the 1855 edition. Until the very last weeks of his life, Whitman continued to put out new editions of Leaves of Grass, each time adding new poems and revising the old ones, so that by the time he published the 1892 so-called Death-Bed Edition, the version most often sold in stores or excerpted in anthologies, he had expanded the original twelve poems to 383. Some of these later poems are works of genius, from the long, symbol-rich elegy, “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom’d,” to tiny sparkling gems like “O Captain! My Captain!” and “A Noiseless, Patient Spider.” But many of Whitman’s later poems, especially those written after he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873, are truly godawful: windy, oracular, abstract, and just plain boring. Worse, his revisions of his earlier poems, especially “Song of Myself,” suffer from the same deadening impulse to edit out the slangy wit and quirky Yankeeisms and make the whole thing sound like Poetry with a capital P.
So, if you care about American poetry, but have always found Whitman gassy and dull, you owe it to yourself – right now – to get your hands on the Penguin Classics edition of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Read Malcolm Cowley’s brilliant, and extremely useful, introduction; skip Whitman’s own interminable prose introduction; and read the poems as they were originally meant to be read.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass is a poetical Declaration of Independence in so many ways it can be hard to keep track of them all. In Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds makes the case for a largely political reading of Whitman, arguing that the poet, profoundly troubled by the turmoil of his time, was trying to heal the country with a poem. Cowley, in his introduction to the 1961 Penguin Classics edition, posits Whitman as a home-grown mystic, unconsciously translating the central tenets of Eastern religious thought for a nineteenth century Western reader. Students of literary history have claimed him as a master formal innovator, crediting him with freeing the poetic line from the strictures of rhyme and meter. More recently, queer theorists, citing Whitman’s close relationships with younger men and his homoerotic “Calamus” poems, have promoted him as the Good Gay Poet.
What makes Whitman such an important figure, and makes “Song of Myself” the only true aspirant to the title of Great American Poem, is that these commentators are all basically right. Whitman was queer as a three-dollar bill, and though it’s unlikely he ever read the Bhagavad-Gita or any other foundational texts of Eastern religion, there is no question his poems espouse a deeply un-Western view on humanity and the divine. He was also an important formal innovator. Before Whitman, Western poetry adhered to rules of rhyme and meter built for a time when printing was an expensive, time-consuming process and poetry was largely an oral art form. Whitman, a newsman whose career coincided with technological advances in the printing press that paved the way for cheap, widely distributed pamphlets and newspapers, saw before anyone else how these advances could free verse from the restrictions of rhyme and meter. Finally, while some teachers may be guilty of playing up his more patriotic poems in order to play down his more uncomfortable private ones, it is clear that Whitman saw the 1855 edition as a poetical means toward a political end. The book’s central image, the leaf or blade of grass, is an overt symbol of democratic equality, “Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones/Growing among black folks as among white,/Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.”
But for the non-specialist reader – which is to say for readers like myself – it is the personal side of his poetry that resonates most deeply. Much is made in the academic world of the omniscient, omnivalent “I” at the center of Leaves of Grass, but a lay reader is just as likely to note the second most important character in the poems, which is nearly always “you.” Whitman is the most intimate of poets, and surely among the most genuinely concerned for the comfort and welfare of his readers. “How is it with you?” he asks in the opening stanzas of “A Song for Occupations,” the second poem in the 1855 edition. “I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.” One of the primary effects of the relaxed poetic line is the way it turns that most formal of literary interactions – a person reading a poem – into a conversation, you and old Walt, bellies to the bar, shooting the shit about the state of your immortal soul.
It was this intimacy, the sense Whitman creates in the original poems that not only is he talking to you but listening as well, that drew me in during that awful year in San Francisco. I was a young man who needed a good talking to, but also one yearning to be heard. I was living, like a lot of lost, lonely people, in a closed ecosystem of my own neuroses, which thrived on hours spent in bed mentally composing suicide notes that would, depending on my mood, devastate my loved ones or bring tears to their eyes at the lost promise of my genius. This was all so crazy I couldn’t possibly tell anyone, yet I desperately needed someone to tell. So, by some alchemical literary process I do not understand to this day, Walt Whitman became my confessor and courage-teacher. I sensed, correctly I think, that Whitman “got” it. He’d been there 150 years before I had, and if I could just teach myself how to listen to him, he might teach me how to stay alive.
And he did. The central tension in the poems in the 1855 edition is between “I” and “you.” The poet is constantly yearning to reach out to you; or reeling from contact with you; or entering into you, thinking your thoughts and feeling your feelings. But who is this you? Sometimes it’s the reader, while at other times it is some stranger the poet has picked out of the crowd, and at still other times it is “my soul” or the “other I am.” After many readings and re-readings, it occurred to me that what I had at first taken to be a conflation of “you’s,” or, worse, a simple confusion, was in fact the whole damn point. What Whitman is saying in Leaves of Grass is that we are all one and the same, not just in the political sense that the slave is equal in worth to the slave master, but that we are all intimately linked in one unbreakable chain of being. The fact that you exist is enough, because whether you have “outstript…the President” or are a “prostitute draggl[ing] her shawl,” by the mere fact of existing you take your rightful place in a miraculous, inter-connected system called the world.
This is why Walt Whitman, or you, or I can cock our hats as we please indoors or out, because no matter who we are, we are just as good and just as necessary as everyone else. But for me it also offered a route out of my endless, self-constructed maze of Self. If there is no wall between I and you, if we are all one and the same, what’s the point of hiding one from the other? Why not acknowledge that part of myself that wanted to die? Why not tell someone that while I never wanted to drink again, I was afraid I might lose my mind if I didn’t? Why not tell my parents I wasn’t the perfect son I wanted them to think I was? Why not sit in a church basement full of strangers, as I did once toward the end of that summer, crying like a baby because a woman had left me and I couldn’t blame her? Why not, if only for this one day, dare to be fully and completely alive?
That awful year is now years behind me and it is hard for me to conjure up the mad cocktail of loneliness, despair and naivety that could make a grown man seek life-saving advice from a book of poems. But I also know that I am not alone. One day not long after I first read the 1855 edition I was at a meeting in a church basement near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, when an older guy named Tom raised his hand to speak. I had always liked Tom. He was clean and well-kempt and we’d had a few very nice discussions about books, notwithstanding the fact that he was off-his-meds crazy and lived in a pup tent in a thicket of trees near Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park. In any case, on this day Tom stood up, and without preamble, began to speak:
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarves,
I am certain that I was the only person in the room who recognized this as Whitman, from Canto 24 of “Song of Myself.” I am just as certain that I was the only person who really listened to him. Tom was a known crazy, and after the first few lines the regulars went back to sipping their lukewarm coffee and checking out the cute young junkie fighting the shakes in her chair by the door. Me, I sat transfixed. It wasn’t just that I recognized the words; it was the way Tom was saying them, with great gusto and energy, as if he were not merely reciting the famous lines of a dead poet, but speaking spontaneously, one finger plugged into the godhead, saying whatever came into his mind. It occurred to me sitting there that Tom was Walt Whitman, or as close to him as I was going to get in my lifetime. He was everything I feared, that terrifying “other I am,” the nice, bright, well-educated guy who had somehow gone horribly wrong and ended up sleeping in a public park and reciting poetry to strangers.
“Divine I am inside and out,” he raved,
and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
There were some chuckles when Tom got to the bit about the aroma of his armpits being finer than prayer, but I didn’t laugh. I didn’t feel pity, either. Instead, I leaned back in my chair, for once taking my mind off the lukewarm coffee in my hands and the cute junkie girl by the door, and just listened.
I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed “Prison Writer” Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”
There are many prison reading projects. There is a Great Books Prison Project and a Prisoners’ Reading Encouragement Project, Books Behind Bars project. Prison literacy programs abound. As they should. Recidivism rates lower in accord with inmate education. This begs the question of what I’d be doing in prison in the first place, being educated and well-read enough to presumably know better. Obviously, I must be a victim of a trumped up charge. And one I would not necessarily quibble with, assuming the prison library was sufficiently stocked and I had time available. I wouldn’t want to waste valuable reading time in prison making license plates. That goes without saying.
It was the Bible that saved souls in the England of the Industrial Revolution, so into the prisons they flowed. Eventually other books were brought in, and, oddly, coded so that the criminal library was distinct from the debtor’s library, the Catholic from the Protestant, prompting some prisoners to switch religions in favor of the better stocked library. To this last point, Janet Fyfe, a scholar who has spent some time studying the history of prison libraries shares that Dundalk Prison, in Ireland, inventoried only religious books, separated by creed. “This is because when they were mixed…prisoners would profess themselves as of whatever creed would yield them the best selection of books!”
Whereas, Genet discovered Proust in prison, William Sydney Porter discovered O. Henry. Porter, while working as a bank teller at the First National Bank of Austin, in Houston, was accused of embezzling several thousand dollars. He fled the country, returning years later to visit his dying wife. He was picked up and thrown in the slammer. It was there he assumed the pen name O. Henry. He was released after three years and died in 1910 with just 33 cents to his name. O. Henry lives on. If there is any credibility to the immortality of the arts, he invested the absconded funds well.
Reading and writing go hand-in-glove. Many readers remain readers only. But seldom does a writer not read. There are, of course, exceptions. E.B. White once commented that he “was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read.” This disappoints me, White being a favorite writer. Perhaps he would have been well served to do a little time in the big house, though one can hardly argue with either the quality or the quantity of his work. (I will resist the temptation to prison-riff on his marvelous collection of essays, One Man’s Meat.)
I recall the movie, Sabrina, the original 1954 Billy Wilder version, starting Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The tag line to the movie was, “the chauffeur’s daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!” Sabrina’s father, played by John Williams, is the chauffeur. What is so remarkable about the character of the chauffeur is that he chose the profession because it would afford him time to read. It seems a remarkable decision in this day to parlay to the screen, in an age when reading seems so off-center of life choices to so vastly many. I am still amazed when I consider this idea, of a life carved out of reading, And even more astounding, that a screenwriter employed the motif. Dad’s great line in the movie, delivered to his daughter Sabrina, is, “He’s still David Larrabee [William Holden], and you’re still the chauffeur’s daughter. And you’re still reaching for the moon.” To which she smartly replied, “No, father. The moon is reaching for me.” Being a chauffeur and reading during curbside breaks appears a sure winner over doing time.
Two of my literary heroes, Michel de Montaigne and Henry David Thoreau, enjoyed a self-imposed prison cell, as it were, in pursuit of their discipline. Montaigne retired to the tower of his family castle in Bordeaux. It was 1571, February 28, his thirty-eighth birthday. Above his library, he had inscribed on the ceiling Pliny’s remark: “There is nothing certain but uncertainty, and nothing more miserable and arrogant than man.” One scholar, writing of Montaigne in his tower, entitled his dissertation, The Prison-House of Writing. Montaigne said he was intent on spending the second half of his life studying the Myself of the first half. A man requires a prison cell to accomplish such things–or a castle tower in Bordeaux. His library was well stocked with what we would today call the classics. It was, in essence, the rediscovery of these works, the Greeks in particular, which fueled the Renaissance, of which Montaigne was a bleeding-edge participant.
Henry David too, famously, went into a loose-knit confined self-exile. His cabin cost him $28 and 12 ½ cents and measured ten feet by fifteen feet, more than twice the size of “Prison Writer” Ken Hartman’s cell. He moved to his cabin at Walden Pond July 4, 1845. He was 28. Thoreau was not at Walden to read, per se. He was seeking solitude. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” he wrote. Like Montaigne, Thoreau was a reader of classic literature, preferring, the original Greek or Latin. He recorded that at Walden he had a copy of The Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu story of Lord Krishna, a selection perhaps not unusual for the quintessential American Transcendentalist. He warned against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence and found the common literature of the day annoyingly unsophisticated. There is that famous night he spent in jail, in protest of poll taxes, used as a means to finance efforts with which he disagreed, specifically slavery and the American-Mexican War. I am uncertain as to whether he had anything to read in his cell. When Emerson visited him in jail, the poet asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” He lived at Walden two years, two months and two days. I was reminded of this once, while traveling in Tibet. Peering up a Himalayan cliff I spotted the pitched cave of a meditating monk, a receding dark mouth agape against the bleached crag face. I was told that a monk, in order to become a lama, must meditate in solitude for three years, three months and three days. It does not feel at all awkward to think of Thoreau as an American lama. To the contrary. Years later, on his deathbed Thoreau’s last words were, “Indian…moose.”
The other thing about prison I deem appealing is the apparent outright lack of responsibility required. Like travel, incarceration should afford one the relief of worrying about one’s obligations. There is no grass to cut presumably, rent to pay or dinner to prepare. The roof is not in disrepair, nor do the windows need replacing. I don’t want to minimize the experience, but on one level it seems a stupidly idyllic existence. There are many things Thoreau has taught me, perhaps most famously, his admonition to, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” If one could really learn this lesson–easier said than done–one could avoid prison altogether, as well as avoid the roof and the window, the grass and possibly walking the dog. A simple existence should be devoid of most of the existential trappings that call for our attention and sap our energies. To this end, I made a list not long ago of things I deemed wasteful of my time and things I deemed worthy of my time. Philosophically, I am more interested in understanding what is possible than understanding what is true. Consequently, my list made no accommodation for the niggling things one is compelled to do. You can be compelled to do something, but it still be a waste of time. If it’s a waste time maybe you should either 1.) drop your compulsion, 2.) become a monk, or 3.) simplify. One entry on my list that made it to both columns, the waste of time column and the worthy column, was technology. This is a reminder that life cannot always be so easily parsed or simplified. Sometimes a thing is a plus and a minus simultaneously. That is itself a complexity one would be well served to better understand.
I have determined that in prison I would not want an electronic book reader. Putting aside the possible problems with downloading books through the thick prison walls, an electronic reader would not keep me company. Books keep me company. They warm me with their presence on cold winter nights and their iridescent bright spines bring me joy on balmy summer mornings. I would want them as my companions in my prison abode. As a young man I used to want my shelves full because the books in place there spoke to my intelligence. Now I understand that its not the evidence of intelligence I seek, but intelligence itself. That is something altogether different and is itself, I hope, a sign of the intelligence I seek. Regardless, books would warm up the cell nicely.
I understand that when you go to prison you walk in with just the clothes on your back. But they don’t stay your clothes for long. You are issued correct attire for occasion, again simplifying things. For argument’s sake, it is a worthy exercise to ask yourself what books you would take with you, if you could. It is similar to the parlor game–now there is an antiquated notion–of asking what you would take from your burning home if you just had two minutes to escape the flames. What would be worse than going to an English prison 150 years ago and discovering that the only books available were dusty religious tomes? Perhaps that was the redeeming intention of punishment by incarceration. If the rules changed and one could bring, say, five books, what would they be? It is an intensely personal question and I suggest you take it up for consideration. Likewise, when traveling, which books make it to your carry-on? Consider for a moment, should the plane have to ditch over an expanse of water and you were to end up on a deserted island with nothing but the contents of your pockets and your carry-on. It would be a pity should your books sink to the depths in the fuselage belly along with your neatly folded underwear. It could happen.
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at Reading Gaol (Reading!) after committing the federal crime of “gross indecency.” He was 41. There he wrote De Profundis (From the Depths) which included these sentences:
…I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.
Reading this, it would appear that prison had the desired effect on Wilde. He fled England upon release and never returned.
I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks until a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports.
A zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. I like the sound of that very much, but I cannot tell you what it means.
Prison cells. Towers in Bordeaux. Cabins in the woods, and tents on the sides of mountains. At work behind the scene is the argument that life can be forced into an edifying and redeeming corner. It is a persuasive, if not compelling notion: That when everything is lost or set aside or taken from you, only then do you have the opportunity to do what it is you truly wish to do, to review your list of what is worthy and what is wasteful. The theme rings true. “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.” I never grow tired of this quote. Thoreau’s desire to live deliberately resonates and is at the heart of Socrates’ observation that the unexamined life is not worth living. Although I cannot personally attest to its efficacy, it carries weight that I suggest prison a good thing because it would strip one of everything extraneous. Extraneous to reading, of course.