This post is not about Mr. Nguyen’s biographical essay on Whitman. I just thought it was funny. Some parts have been obscured to protect the innocent.
I don’t think it would be unfair to call Whitman an optimist.
When I read Whitman, I can sometimes feel myself turning into an optimist, as well. It’s a kind of empathy, I suppose. Or an artifact of his technical ability as a poet. I deny on all points that I could possibly be myself an optimist, even in the most remote recesses of my psyche. Impossible.
But the issue stands that Whitman has this ability to tint my glasses a rosier hue than I am accustomed to. Take, for instance, a conversation I had yesterday with my roommate. He, being an English major himself, is interested in what I’m learning about Whitman in this class. I began describing Whitman’s sense of unity, of the universal, his confidence in the ultimate greatness of all human beings and of nature and God, and I found myself speaking with an uncharacteristic passion, as if I believed what I was saying. My roommate even made a comment that perhaps reading Whitman was turning me into “less of an ass.” That comment, made in jest, nonetheless struck a fearsome chord inside of me, and I was overcome with a sudden self-doubt. It was in this moment that the chip I was eating, seeing my momentary disorientation and weakness, lodged itself firmly in the gum behind my lower teeth. I responded with cursing and kicking of various pieces of furniture. I am not one to be trifled with, after all.
Having composed myself, and looking back on the event, I began to meditate on the nature of Whitman’s optimism and how it relates to my own attitude. Perhaps I would like to carry with me a belief that “the fruition of beauty is … as inevitable as life.” As it stands, I am largely unable even to take the assumption that life itself is inevitable: it seems most of us have to work pretty hard just to keep death at bay.
The beauty I’ve come to see, if there is any, is the beauty of dying things. After all, what beautiful thing is not dying? (Death, by the way, is not a desirable thing. Whitman may be ecstatic having turned to grass, but I rather like being sentient.)
All of that’s to say I decided to write a poem rather than come up with something insightful to write a blog post about.
I Guess By Now I Should Know What You’re About, Walt Whitman
I have read your book in two versions at least,I have read your life in books. I wrote your poems—we all did—and I am unsure still that I will everbelieve myself or you or anyone. Walk down the street,I see only the street and the people it inhabits,the things it feeds them before feeding itself upon them.A block or less from anywhere’s a body sexless and chainedto questions they’ve forgotten how to ask. Twist an ear,it falls easily into your hand. Another block,line them up to categories, to catalogues of ruinand the remains of office buildings. It is not humilitythat keeps me among them, calling my own namelike a demand. Tell me your exploits, Walt Whitman,your penetrating experiences. Sit us down on the shore,what waters wash our feet? Give me your eyes,Walt Whitman, will I see as you have? I am trying,I am always trying at your belt buckle. Look at me now,Walt Whitman. I am naked as you are naked, and lying amongyour countless bodies. Be silent. It is the wind’s turn to speak.