On Walt Whitman's Birthday
Art by Brittany Metka (IG: @cursiveartstudios)
In honor of Walt Whitman's birthday today, we had planned to publish an essay on him by one of our friends on Twitter, Aleah Dye (@bearsbeetspoet).
However, in light of recent events and the discovery of Whitman's racist remarks, Aleah wished to preface her essay with this note:
Last night, I discovered some of the racist remarks Whitman made throughout his life, a stark contradiction to the unifying and humanitarian body of his poetry for which I admired him. As you will see with this essay, I saw myself in him and him in me. I feel like I lost a father figure. I am heartbroken. I am ashamed. I am appalled that throughout my education, personal research, and personal reading of his works that this vitriol he spoke in interviews and common life slipped through the cracks. I am asking you to read this essay to see that people/academic sources/academics ourselves hide the ugliness of dead white men's lives.
It turns out, I may be a kosmos, but Whitman did not examine his racist upbringing and culture enough to become one. I hold out hope that his poetry is the true reflection of him and that his public comments were to deflect and blend in to a very racist society, but even so: I do NOT condone his racism. I will NOT excuse it.
Please donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund and/or Reclaim the Block. Please learn with me about the history of our beloved poets. I am so sorry. I am so hurt, but more importantly, I hope I do not hurt any of you. #BlackLivesMatter
TW for the below articles: racism, racist language/slurs
Under My Boot-Soles
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
You never did shut up, and I love it. You never silenced your yawp before exhaustiveness peaked. You knew that your words deserved to be heard, whether audiences were willing and patient or not. I call that passion, and when my lines tirade against racism and sexism and other plagues, I don’t shut up either.
Even outside of your writing, you let your opinions gleam through the mist. Your job tenure in journalism was terminated when you unleashed your “radical” opinions on women’s property rights and immigration and slavery. (For, for, against.) “Public attention, within the last few days has been naturally turned to the slave trade—that most abominable of all man’s schemes for making money, without regard to the character of the means used for the purpose.”
It seems society has always been fearful of a person with sharp wit and a pen, a well of angst that is both right and righteous.
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough[.]
The body—sang electric by you, praised by you, embraced by you. You relished both the female and male form, and here I am, still made uncomfortable even discussing sex. The first guy that tried to show himself to me, that tried to convince me to ascend to the physical, was met with my red and hidden face, as I was forced to explain that I was too nervous.
I suppose you had a certain kind of confidence in yourself that you saw inherently in others, and that made it simple to examine their pieces, their souls (which you thought their bodies were synonymous with). Maybe that’s the reason I can’t handle it—I can’t handle my own soul. I’m afraid of what I’ll find there.
But you were fearless.
Your imposing beard, your childlike, innocent eyes, your broad shoulders, that ghost of a grin coming together to represent a body you were proud of, a body you were ready to learn from. You took your knowledge and gifted it to humanity, expressing how all of our bodies are parts of one whole—one beautiful, encompassing, organic whole. My flowing, chocolate hair and diminutive stature do not mean we are not in sync. You were you, but you are also me.
Give me the splendid, silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling.
Nature spoke to you, the grass whispering secrets in your ears. Thankfully, you listened. Thankfully, you shared. You were the witness, and now I am yours.
Maybe you sat under the trees as a child, the few times you could get off work, the few times you could take a break from helping your family afford the simple things. Eleven years old and an office boy for lawyers before becoming a printer’s devil—heavy responsibility for someone that young. Maybe you looked around and understood that what you are made of also makes the leaves, appreciating the shared vibrancy while you gazed into the canopies above. Maybe all your poetry was brewing inside you long before publication.
And when the sun would shine on you, you would think about how your mother’s smile glowed just as brightly and how New York nurtures the best living things. You wanted to join yourself with those living things and never be separated. For you, nature was God, God was nature, and you sought communion.
I’ve always felt that there is a certain glory in a sunset. A glimpse into some higher power’s mind, if you will. So, I want to scrutinize the colors in the way you scrutinized the grass. I want to discover all of my answers within nature in hope that I can figure out which questions I should be asking of the world in the first place.
I accept Time absolutely. It alone is without flaw, It alone rounds and completes all[.]
The thing you found perfect and clear is the thing I find damaged and confounding. I’m always stuck in the past, using my present self only as an object of comparison, and the future exists as a thumbtack of worry, sharp and immovable, on a map that I tend to leave on the shelf. But for you, they were one—past, present, future, all bound together, unable to be conceived of as disparate.
That mindset granted you peace that I have yet to experience. I tear apart years, I analyze them until they shrink into the inconceivable, but I can’t sew them back together. You weaved time, a mystic maturity in your words. You presented us with The Poet, someone whom Time itself respects, someone whom time cannot control.
Your having been content to simply exist in the moment is enough to make me believe I can last one second without craving my past. It’s enough to make me try.
…the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
You pioneered writing freely, chains of the form broken, allowing me to realize that what I have to say can come to the party no matter how it is dressed. Your ceaseless voice, your stream of consciousness, your creation of the exquisite out of unlimited language and sound—I cling to those examples. My own poetry reflects the things I admire in yours, albeit unintentionally. I never quite noticed it myself until others began pointing out our similarities: the falling into free verse, the subjects of nature and love, the unconventional phrasing and imagery.
“Describe me in terms of poetics,” I once said to a boy whose writing and smile had caught my attention.
“You’re a Walt Whitman-esque babe…” The rest doesn’t matter now, but that beginning certainly does.
You say, “I know I am deathless, I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass, I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.”
And I say, “I know that I am wonder, that my fingers flying embody grace and gentleness—intrigue, intriguing, I am the intriguer.”
You’ve pulled my verses out of me. Touching others with my writing, dredging up emotions long buried—these things, I want to contribute.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Your optimism and admiration persisted even when you reflected on what rattles most others—death. Perhaps that’s because you had an idea of what was to come afterwards. You ruminated on transcendence, so maybe you knew you’d wind up somewhere outside of space and time. Somewhere wondrous.
I’m not scared of death, but I am curious. I left religion for agnosticism—I do not have provable answers. You seemed to know that to die is to truly live, but I don’t know how to grasp that security for myself. Did some God show you something that They keep from the rest of us? Did They let you in on some secret, hoping you could expose it to us all through your writing?
Am I missing it?
It was the unity, wasn’t it? Your deism? You respected every church, every religion, despite not fully believing in or committing to any of them. They were all organized in your mind, each faith in its own place, and perhaps that allowed you to organize the concept of death, compartmentalizing it and placing a red bow on top to open at a later date. Acceptance of the many lead to acceptance of the one.
Pleurisy took you, but were you lucky? I believe you, too, did not collapse, instead moving onward and outward, so I guess one could call that luck. Maybe somehow, you will read this. Maybe part of you is reading it over my shoulder right now, nodding encouragingly when my turn of phrase pleases you.
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.
I can picture you hunched over that line, pen in hand, correcting and improving limitlessly because your own efforts never satiated you. The whole of Leaves of Grass took nine attempts. It, too, likely left you unsatisfied, swimming in your flaws, wallowing in your interrupted flow and unbalanced sound on any number of pages.
It had to be perfect. You had to be perfect. I find myself tripping over my shoelaces seeking the same clumsy, impossible standards, but maybe if I write this down, if I admit it on paper, we’ll both be vindicated.
You were, and I am, flawed; I accept that. I accept that I argue too much with my mom and that you were at one point barred from working at seven newspapers in a four-year stretch.
How many pens did you snap when things weren’t working out?
You are also asking me questions and I hear you, I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.
People wonder why I am drawn to you, a man long gone, unable to engage with me in a way they consider meaningful. The thing is, even if you were still here, you would never tell me what to do, would never directly guide me into achieving the clarity you seemed to arrive at through your work. It’s not about that.
You take me on a journey. You prove to me that I have inside of me what you had inside of you. That’s what I need, the assurance that I can do this, that I can create something worthy of life after my death, that I can be at ease with myself, that I can be in love with the world and all it bursts with containing.
“As seems very proper in a book of transcendental poetry, the author withholds his name from the title page, and presents his portrait, neatly engraved on steel, instead. This, no doubt, is upon the principle that the name is merely accidental; while the portrait affords an idea of the essential being from whom these utterances proceed. We must add, however, that this significant reticence does not prevail throughout the volume, for we learn on p. 29, that our poet is "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." That he was an American, we knew before, for, aside from America, there is no quarter of the universe where such a production could have had a genesis. That he was one of the roughs was also tolerably plain; but that he was a kosmos, is a piece of news we were hardly prepared for. Precisely what a kosmos is, we trust Mr. Whitman will take an early occasion to inform the impatient public (Charles Eliot Norton, Review of Leaves of Grass, 1855).”
I admit that I’m not sure if I should be figuring out what a kosmos is or if I should be figuring out whether or not I, too, am one.