Walt Whitman, the First Great American Poet

Walt Whitman left a legacy as an American poet that cannot be ignored.  Yet, nearly 120 years after his death, polarization of opinion about his work and his influence is still strong.  It seems that you either love him or you hate him, and in most cases that view depends upon your moral convictions.  There is no doubt that his work was controversial in his day, evidenced by the labels of “obscene” and “pornographic” given by some reviewers.  For those who have seriously studied his work, the general consensus of opinion is that Walt Whitman was a great American poet and in fact, is considered the first great poet of America.  However, to many in this great nation, instead of singing the body electric, Whitman’s poetry demeans and degrades the human spirit.  And while his works may have shocked the sensitivities of some readers in his day, it is tame by today’s standards, giving us an early preview of America as the land of porn.

A Short Biography

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York and died in 1892 in New Jersey at age 72. He was the second of eight surviving children in a poor family struggling to barely subsist, both physically and emotionally. Biographers have surmised that his father was probably an alcoholic.  There was some mental instability in his family among his brothers and sisters. Although his formal education ended at age 11, Whitman was a very successful autodidact, a self-educated man. He worked for a time in the newspaper industry as a journalist, editor and printer. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years but did not enjoy it and quit abruptly, with some speculating that it was due to an unwanted romantic advance toward one of his young male students.

Leaves of Grass

Returning to journalism at age thirty, he began what became his life’s work: Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry written in a distinctly American style using free verse and a cadence based on the Bible.  He self-published his book in 1855 and published multiple editions in his lifetime. The book was and is powerful, abandoning traditional verse for free verse poetry. It was also deemed by some to be controversial as they found his repeated sexual imagery content to be offensive.  When he presented copies to his family, his own brother said it not worth reading.  Although he did not list himself as the author, he did include a now-famous portrait of himself facing the title page, with an open-neck shirt, jaunty hat and one hand on hip.  In the body of the text he identified himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist…”  He was, in all respects, a natural man.

O Captain, My Captain

Whitman’s sexual orientation is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual.  He never married but had several long-term intimate relationships with other men in his lifetime. Whitman achieved international recognition and worked tirelessly to promote his book. He obviously lived during the Civil War and that was a big influence in his life. He travelled to Washington looking for his brother who he had heard had been killed, but was only wounded. He spent time on the battlefields and in hospitals caring for the sick and the wounded. He came to greatly admire Lincoln and was deeply affected by his assassination. His most famous poem, O Captain, My Captain was about Lincoln and he gave many lectures on the president’s life. He suffered serious health problems in his later years, surviving three paralyzing strokes.

America’s National Poet

Walt Whitman answered Emerson’s call for poets to expound the new world of the United States. There is no doubt that he did this powerfully, uniquely and in a highly acclaimed manner. He was considered America’s national poet, at first more by Europeans than by his fellow Americans, at least in his own day. Using free verse, Whitman created a new style of writing that was uniquely American. He used natural voice and diction to imitate the natural flow of thought and feeling. He had a grand vision of speaking for America and explaining what it was all about. He saw and described scenes that leave you feeling like you were also there with him. He was innocent enough to believe that there really was such a job as a national poet.

An Epic to Celebrate America

Whitman was on the forefront of the American literary scene and was well prepared to promote it. His language was uniquely American, not British or European; powerfully American. His language had fewer rules; it was looser, courser, rougher and more promiscuous. He felt he was actively involved in the struggle for democracy with Leaves of Grass. He also said that he hoped his book would heal the nation and even prevent Civil War. He wanted to inspire and stir people with his work.  He viewed his book as a true epic. What would an epic be like?  It would celebrate America, the American self, the “I.”  In fact, he sings of America throughout the book.

The Great Equalizer

Before Leaves of Grass he wrote editorials but he saw that they were mostly ineffective so he created a more profound work through his free-verse writings. He addressed the soul and the psyche of the nation, to create a real sense of community. He threw his book out there with a lot of hope for a nation that would soon divide apart. Whitman wanted his book to be written by the nation and for the nation using his voice. In his preface he says that the poet is the great equalizer and the one who is in balance. He obviously had a great ego and assumed a lot, but believed in his age and his country. He felt that he had a national mission to fulfill because he could see and tell of a world of experience in a way that nobody else could or did. He wanted to preserve the Union, to hold things together and yet maintain our unique identity. The many contradictions and differences of our nation did not bother him.  He wanted us to accept them and him and was truly puzzled by those who could not or would not accept either.

Legacy of Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s personal literary journey of national significance. His desire was to sing of the new country with a new voice and he felt the time was ripe. There is no doubt that Whitman’s vision and ego helped him produce his masterwork. His profound vision created a tremendous contribution to American literary history. Numerous poets have tried to place themselves in his wake or have reacted violently to him. There is no getting around him.  He was a celebrity in his day and is celebrated today.  He had disciples that surrounded him in his later years and still has a large following today. But why is he so important?  It is because he stirred up such controversy and got people talking. More importantly, he broke the boundaries of poetic form and elevated common people through his portrayals of American life.

A Religious Skeptic

Leaves of Grass had a major impact on the literary world; His work cannot be ignored. His poetry has been set to music and inspired musicians, both classical and popular. Europeans said that you couldn’t really understand America without Walt Whitman. Some modern poets have said that Whitman is not just America’s poet, but he is America. Whitman considered himself to be a messiah-like figure in poetry; so did his admirers. His vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement as well as by anti-war poets.  He took what Emerson and Thoreau started with the transcendentalist movement, thoroughly Americanized it and then set it free to enjoy a new life through his free-verse poetry.  His style speaks to many people who think as he did and do not live within the constraints of limitations imposed by moral boundaries of religious America.  Though he was born to a Quaker family, it would be more proper to classify Whitman as a man of spirituality and not a man of religion.  He as deeply influenced by Deism and denied that any one faith was more important than another. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, who was also a religious skeptic, he embraced all religions equally.  And though he accepted all churches, he believed in none.  It is safe to say that Whitman’s religion was like his verse: free and easy.

A Mass of Stupid Filth

But it is his forays into eroticism that elicited such strong responses from his critics.  They said that his poetry was “a mass of stupid filth” and that Whitman was like a pig “rooting among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.”  For example, in section 11 of Song of Myself, Whitman warned us that he was going to celebrate himself, get bawdy and lusty and otherwise embrace the passion, pulse and power of life.  The 29th bather is a powerful example of how he makes that happen.  In section 3 of Song of Myself he had already exposed us to the urge of sex, and now he sprays us with a beach orgy. Section 11 is famously known as the 29th bather, a fantasy that starts from a female narrative and ends with a homoerotic shocker.  It caused one reviewer to exclaim that he was guilty of violating “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.”  Another accused him in Latin of homosexual behavior.

Raw Sexuality

While some biographers are certain in their declarations that there was never any evidence of homosexual activity, what is certain is that he used the imagery of raw sexuality liberally throughout Leaves of Grass. “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world…always sex” are found along with scenes of “hugging and loving bedfellows.  He takes on an all-knowing and condescending spirit that tells us to forget about “creeds and schools,” religion and education, and just listen to what wisdom he is about to belch forth.  With arrogance he states that “what I assume, you shall assume,” as if to say that our views could only possibly be his views. He is going to introduce us to the common laborers of America, the average people who are cheerfully and skillfully working to build the great American dream.

I Celebrate Myself

Throughout his work we will witness numerous vignettes of life in the America of Walt Whitman’s day, not life in halls of congress or places of business, but in homes and gathering places. And through it all, we are to be subjected to the lusty, bawdy, fleshy side of life that Whitman, or his muse, wants us to see, hear and experience.  With Walt, we will hear the delicious singing, the “party of young fellows, robust and friendly, singing with mouths open their strong melodious songs.”  He is positively giddy. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself… undisguised and naked…mad to be in contact with” the sensual nature of this physical and worldly existence.  We will soon be reading biography, sermon and poetic meditation of this muse all lustily embracing the fleshy body as it expresses itself through the life of Whitman.

The 29th Bather

In Leaves of Grass, Walt writes of getting “undisguised and naked,” and sensually urges his readers to “Undrape!  You are not guilty to me,” but “stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical.” But these words and phrases are nothing compared to the scene that unfolds in the 29th bather.  The young lady lets her imagination take her to the beach to join the crowd of young men, describing the beards of the young men glistening with wet that ran from their long hair, little streams that passed all over their bodies. “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies; it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.”  And then the action turns decidedly homoerotic as actions are performed on the young men by whom – the unseen 29th bather or by each other?  If Whitman intended to shock the sensibilities of his readers, he wildly succeeded.  But then, this is nothing compared to sex-soaked erotic content of a more modern classic such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which dwells on the lusty subject of masturbation.

The Good Gray Poet

How this erotic and sexually dissident poet was adopted as America’s national bard and anointed “the Good Gray Poet” is hard to understand.  He never did reach the common people but was celebrated by the intellectuals of the day, especially from other countries.  Did Whitman presage the view of America as the land of porn? If not, then he certainly did contribute a fair share for his day.  The real work in analyzing and appreciating Whitman’s poetry is in looking past the celebration of the natural man and seeing in it the celebration of America, the great land of opportunity and the dream that all can succeed and that anything can be created and promoted.  All it takes is the kind of confidence and belief in oneself that Walt Whitman had in abundance.  In that respect, Walt Whitman was truly an American genius of a rock-star caliber for his day.  If Whitman could successfully promote and sell out every edition of his book each time it went to press, in spite of the moral constraints of his day, just think what we should be able to do today!

Controversy Promotes

Of course I’m not suggesting that we rush out to write a bunch of pornographic prose as he did, but I am saying that, like Whitman, we should celebrate this great nation for the freedoms of expression that we enjoy and that can really be found in no other nation of this world today. And, like Whitman, if we embrace the spirit of controversy and promotion of something unique, as was his free-verse style, then we should be able to reach out to millions of people through the modern leaves of grass – the Internet.  Isn’t that what many of today’s bloggers are hoping to accomplish?  They are the Walt Whitman’s of our day, bypassing the established norms of book publishing for the new media of the Internet.  And they succeed because of their controversial content and endless self-promotion.  If only what they promoted was uplifting to the human spirit.  Controversial content is what drives the readers to the blogs and websites where they want to express their own opinions in the comments.  Walt Whitman knew what would sell and he knew how to sell it.  Just think of what he could have done if he lived in the Internet age!

Getting Past Prejudices with the Musical Rent

The warning signs outside the theater were ominous: “Adult content not suitable for children.”  Looking around as we entered, I had to remember that the college-age students there were not children.  That’s hard to do when you have offspring older than most present, including the actors performing the show.  Carol and I were there by assignment to see the musical “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer award winning rock-opera drama about life in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s.  It takes place in the neighborhood known as Alphabet City, an area primarily inhabited by bohemian young people wanting to break into theater, TV or music.  Sadly, the area also had high levels of illegal drug activity, violent crime and HIV/AIDS.

Undoubtedly the themes of homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness prompted the warnings about the adult content.  The characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use.  It’s not exactly “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was written intentionally to shake things up, but also to address the concepts of love, loss and community.  Those are the themes that I would like to address in this essay.  If we can overcome bigotry and be compassionate towards people living with AIDS for a few moments then we can be uplifted by some beautiful elements of Rent.

I’ll admit I was a little put-off when I read some of the articles and reviews of the play in advance of witnessing the production.  I wanted to know more about the story before I saw it.  I like to think I’m not homophobic but from what I had read in some reviews, the lifestyle went beyond mere portrayal; it was celebrated, endorsed and flaunted in your face.  I didn’t want to see that.  I’m old-fashioned in that I believe that some things should be left private, and sexual activity is one of them.  However, the production that we saw must have been a tamed-down version because there was only occasional gay kissing and touching, nothing too disturbing.  I was more bothered by the decibels of the musicians, which sometimes drowned out the singers.

Outstanding Music

The songs in Rent are the first of the beautiful and uplifting elements that I noticed.  The entire play is a musical.  It seemed like there were very few lines spoken that were not actually sung.  Even the hilarious little phone messages peppered throughout the play were delightfully sung to us, adding much entertainment to the dramatic production.  Who hasn’t heard “Seasons of Love,” especially since it has been playing in some TV commercial lately?  Although not particularly uplifting to me, La Vie Boheme was immensely entertaining.  Other enjoyable songs included Your Eyes, Goodbye Love, Light My Candle, Tango Maureen, Out Tonight, One Song Glory, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, No Day But Today, and Living in America.

I can’t think of one thing with more universal appeal than the idea of love.  Who doesn’t want to be loved?  I have met people who have said no when I asked them if they wanted to be happy in life but I have never met someone who said no when asked if they wanted to be loved or at least accepted for who they are.  Of the three major themes I saw in the play, the idea of being loved came across the strongest.  Although they had a lot of emotional handicaps and baggage, these were people dealing with building relationships.  I can’t identify with being a drag queen but when Angel was dying, I found myself shedding a tear for Collins’ loss.

Living with Loss

These people lived with loss every day.  That’s why one of the recurring songs was entitled, “No Day but Today.”  How they dealt with that loss teaches a lot about the idea of community.  They came together in their grief.  They comforted one another.  They took care of one another the best they could.  Mimi was not judged for her drug addiction but was encouraged to live without it and find something better to take its place.  Since so many of their friends were dying, they adopted the motto to live for the day and to reach for their dreams one day at a time.  How hard it must be to make plans for the future when you are living with a disease like AIDS.

It was love and loss that built their community.  They only had each other.  Rejected by so many outside their world, they had to give each other strength, and they did.  Although the ending was a little hokey with Angel becoming the angel who told Mimi to go back when she was dying, the love that developed between Roger and Mimi was delightful to witness.  How can you not love a happy, feel-good ending where the main characters find happiness in each other?   Except there’s one big problem – they still have AIDS and will die someday.  But then, so will we all.  See, it really does have universal appeal.  The play mirrors life that someday will end.

After seeing the play, Carol read the script and I read dozens of reviews.  I was fascinated by the dichotomy of opinions expressed.  It seems that most reviewers either loved it or hated it.  One said she had never walked out of a play before in her life but walked out on Rent.  She must have had a family member in our audience because a couple in front of us walked out at the first encounter of affection expressed between Angel and Collins.  Were they homophobic?  In all probability, yes they were.  I mean, the music was loud and the show could be confusing if you weren’t paying close attention, but it was obvious that they didn’t like what they were seeing.

Reviews from Viewers

Here’s a quote from one of those reader reviews I found in the NY Times about the time the show was closing after a twelve-year run:  “If you want homosexuality and drug addiction rubbed in your face, then this is the play for you. I basically hated it, if you haven’t figured that out yet.”  In contrast, “Rent is a fabulous roller-coaster ride of emotion. The characters are extremely real, and so are the troubles they face. The songs are beautiful and the energy and electricity of it is so wonderful that you are a complete moron if you don’t like it. The only reason anyone wouldn’t like this show is if they are homophobic, intolerant, and weak.”

But my favorite had to be, “So let’s see… a group of drug addicted promiscuous squatters are the heroes and the one person who breaks from the group and becomes successful and buys the building (which they live in illegally) is the bad-guy because he wants rent… hhhmmmm… and let’s see, we have loud screeching that we’re supposed to call singing but it’s “cool dude” ’cause the lead is just so hot looking and has the teeny bopper girls squealing in delight.  This is a show for the MTV-Put-Upon Generation… pure junk.”  Opinions of performances are one thing but this reviewer was obviously passing judgment and commenting on the lifestyle choices.

The Composer

Part of the impact of the show is the death of the composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, on the night before the play opened off Broadway.  In spite of his death, the show went on.  Glowing reviews began to appear. The six-week run sold out immediately.  In the months to come, Rent moved to Broadway, won four Tony awards, including the prize for best musical, and Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, posthumously.  The show went on to become one of the longest running productions on Broadway and is now enjoying a second life in local theater.

Social Impact

Rent has had and is still having a social impact.  While the play is now a little dated with the use of pay phones, answering machines and clunky old cell phones the size of a brick, it is still attracting younger crowds wherever it plays.  Of course, that was probably inevitable in our case, given that our venue was a local community college.  Wherever it opens, it is reviewed by the local theater critics.  The comments posted on those online reviews demonstrate that some of the same prejudices and bigotry are still alive and well in America today.  Rent is a wonderful example of American creativity that reaches to the very heart of our lives through love and loss.  I hope our community has changed and become more tolerant in the years since it first opened.

I haven’t included a lot of quotes from the musical, because frankly, they aren’t very deep.  For example, here’s one from the song, Light my Candle: “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.”  And from Angel, the transvestite, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”  From the song Will I, about dying from AIDS: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”  I suppose my favorite has to be “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me…”  That last quote is from Maureen, one of the two lesbians.  Some of the stuff is really quite funny, if you can just get past the idea that these are people looking for love in unorthodox relationships.

Unorthodox Relationships

And that is the point of the play and the impact it has had on America.  How do we view the lives of those who are not in orthodox relationships?  Do we view them as sinners, in need of repentance and salvation, who will suffer in hell because of their poor lifestyle choices?  I am confident that there are millions of people who will voice that very opinion without hesitation.  Or do we love and accept them, making an effort to help them find happiness and success in life?  That is one of the toughest choices in life, especially for those who have family members living in a lifestyle that is contrary to the moral principles that they value.  Rent helps us see past the pain and sorrow of rejection and loss of those who live with AIDS and still manage to have hope.

It’s that final scene of hope that I find most uplifting and inspiring about the play.  They found hope because they loved and supported each other through their loss and sorrow.  I think Jonathan Larson would be pleased to think that his play has helped us to become more loving and supportive of each other, especially those who deal with AIDS on a daily basis.  And in the end, the millions he earned posthumously from the play helps others pursue their writing careers.

Note: Carol saw the play with me and shared an excellent review on her blog.