While reading Sherman Alexie’s Defending Walt Whitman could not help but to stop and reread the section that depicted his facial hair, “He is a small man and his beard/is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane./ His beard makes the Indian boys laugh righteously. He beard frightens/the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin/of the Indian boys who dibble past him. His beard, his beard!”
What is it about Whitman’s chin fluff that everyone finds so fascinating? We see the big white beard appear again and again in so many poems as a shout out to Walt, so what is with the obsession?
Perhaps the most well know and quoted reference to the beard is in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s poem Ode to Walt Whitman, “Not a single moment, old beautiful Walt Whitman,/ have I stopped seeing your beard full of butterflies.” Butterflies for Lorca are often a direct symbol for homosexuality. He admires and respects Whitman as a homosexual poet. Jack Spicer, who was largely influenced by Lorca, later reuses these same two lines in his poem also called Ode For Walt Whitman, again furthering the connection of Whitman’s facial hair as symbol for the not only the American queer poet, but as an international model.
The beard makes another important sighting in Allen Ginsberg’s poem, A Supermarket in California, “Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour./Which way does your beard point tonight?”. In a blog post that Catherine O’hare made a month or two ago she also examines the meaning behind Whitman’s appearance in the Ginsberg’s poem, stating that “Whitman’s Beard: Ginsberg’s Compass”. She reads the poem as Ginsberg discussing the almost mentor relationship he has with Whitman, namely in regards to the accepting and embracing of his homosexuality. He is seeking guidance, trying to follow whatever direction the beard, which has already been established as this sort of subtle queer symbol, is leading. This reading can be further implied by the brief appearance of Lorca, “by the watermelons”.
It is interesting how this one part on his body can be singled out and called to represent a specific Whitman out of the multitudes.