On Poetry

Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life

By posted at 11:24 am on July 4, 2011 17


Walt Whitman. Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan

1.
coverIt 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.

2.
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.

3.
coverThe 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.  

coverWhat 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?

4.
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.





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17 Responses to “Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life”

  1. Philip Hopkins
    at 2:58 pm on July 4, 2011

    I disliked Whitman for years, very nearly hated him. Charlatan, I thought, propagandist. I preferred Yeats, Dylan Thomas, and contemporary poets like Dean Young. Then last year he changed me, along with another poet I’d previously disliked – Rumi. Thanks for this.

    His valedictory poem So Long is worth exploring.

  2. Shelley
    at 7:13 pm on July 4, 2011

    As a writer, I also admire Whitman because he defied the stereotypes that we get ossified as we get older. Have you heard the supposed audio of him? Do you think it’s the real thing? I want it to be….

  3. Ben
    at 1:15 am on July 5, 2011

    Thank you, Michael.

  4. Jim
    at 1:18 pm on July 5, 2011

    A really lovely essay, Michael. At a particularly difficult time in my own life, I was heartened by the lines:

    “… depressions or exaltations,
    They come to me days and nights and go from me again,
    But they are not the Me myself.”

    Whitman is rightly celebrated as a great gatherer, an observer willing to embrace whatever he comes across. But I like these lines for depicting Whitman as something of an editor, able to pare away the externalities of life from the core, essential self.

  5. Bob
    at 1:56 pm on July 5, 2011

    This essay made my morning!

    Thank you so much.

  6. Sara beasley
    at 6:33 pm on July 5, 2011

    A gorgeous and poignant piece, Michael. Thank you.

  7. Dawn Shepler-Hamilton
    at 7:09 pm on July 5, 2011

    Thanks for inspiring me to re-look at Walt. I’ve tried off and on with no luck but each time thinking underneath must be a treasure if only I could readjust my eyesight. I may have found the right tilt thanks to you.

  8. nate knapp
    at 7:11 pm on July 5, 2011

    lovely article. thanks for your honesty! this reminds me of the experience i had when i found theodore roethke for the first time.

  9. Bill Blackburn
    at 1:49 pm on July 10, 2011

    Thank you for a beautiful essay. In The Red Thread of Passion, David Guy calls Whitman the American Buddha.

    Walt Whitman saved my life, too. I’ve said that many times over many years. Indeed, he was my first true male lover. After leaving my beloved wife because I could no longer live that way, I found men unable to match me in my need for intimacy … until I found Walt. Or did he find me? Taking me by the hand, he sat me down by the margins of ponds, walked with me in paths untrodden, singing to me of the yearning of his soul that was the yearning of mine, of his presence in my life and his awareness of me in his. O, lover, mentor, camerado! I keep him close by me still, tucked in my clothes where he can feel the beat of my heart and I can feel his.

  10. Andree Pages
    at 5:11 pm on July 10, 2011

    Wonderful essay. I love “Song of Myself,” and many of the others, and find them to be a potent antidote to depression/alienation. Ditto Rumi. Both of them have this fearless quality–their brains go anywhere, and leave me laughing in amazement. Thank you for reminding us.

  11. michael
    at 7:08 pm on July 10, 2011

    THANK YOU. I find myself today in a situation much like that of your awful year…except that for me it has only been 48 hours without drinking.

    I feel incredibly fortunate to have read this and to have the Library of America Whitman here in the room with me already. There isn’t much else to say. But this piece has given me hope for the first time in a long time and I just wanted to express my gratitude.

  12. GB
    at 9:56 am on July 11, 2011

    Michael, Your essay moved me at the deepest of levels. Whitman saved my life as well, or at the least my sanity. I had an experience that was beyond belief and at the same time beyond doubt. It was the experience which Walt described thusly;
    Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
    And I know that the hand of God is the elder hand of my own,
    And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
    And that all the men ever born are also brothers,
    . . . and all the women sisters and lovers,
    And that a kelson of the creation is love.
    ~ `~ ~ ~ ~
    I thought perhaps I had lost my mind. It seemed as if everythinbg I had previously thought was wrong. I was, simply, lost. But then in one of those mysterious “coincidences” of life I came across Leaves of Grass. As I read, it all became clear. Indeed we are all a part of the whole. Indeed we are each perfect exactly as we are. And yes, “the other I” is an equal part of the totality of who I am. And you, camarado, have espressed eloquently the essence of Walt Whitman’s message to the world. Thank you.

  13. Walt Whitman as Suicide Prevention
    at 2:05 am on July 18, 2011

    [...] Below is an excerpt from the article, which you can read in its entirety here: [...]

  14. Sue
    at 9:47 am on July 20, 2011

    Thanks to Robin Bates over at BetterLivingThroughBeowulf, for alerting me to your post. Among the many things I appreciated was your description of why you might find suicide helpful – as a way of making actual the death that you were feeling in your soul.

    I picked up Whitman again this past spring, many years after reading him in my college lit class, and was struck by the universalism of his voice. His insistence on taking into himself the human experience and speaking for as much of humanity as he could see or imagine was striking. And so were the insights that came upon your own reflection of what that could mean in your own life:

    “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?”

    Thanks for this well crafted essay.

  15. Edan Lepucki
    at 10:45 am on March 3, 2012

    I can’t believe I didn’t read this essay until now, Michael. It’s beautiful.

  16. Dyche
    at 1:17 pm on April 27, 2012

    Beautiful essay. I think I have developed Stendahl Syndrome over Whitman. Reading him wrings me out emotionally in a way that no other poet ever has. I cannot, for example, get very far into ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ without dissolving into tears.

  17. Angel
    at 6:58 pm on June 21, 2013

    I have been reading some of the lines on the poetry of this great poet of all time. It happened since I recently has gone through a heart attack that changed my life completely. I came to the conclusion that the “self” becomes part of a big scheme of life. Life can change in a second and the words expressed by W.W in their poems depict extarordinarily the way people ought to see life today. Few people are able to admire what is around them and express vividly the significance of pleasure, passion and freedom the way W.W did. I have become a “comrade” of his works. I remember that I read some of his works at university, however, I never imagined how stunningly his words could make feel part of what he “himself” was experiencing while writing.

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