This is just a strange thing that happened to me the other day that I thought might have to do with Whitman. It was John Berryman’s birthday and I was looking for this one particular Dream Song that I did not find but instead I found a few old friends. One that I read was Dream Song 145 which is this:
Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong
for going on forty years–forgiveness time–
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or my brother
as he threatened–
a powerful swimmer, to take one of us along
as company in the defeat sublime,
freezing my helpless mother:
he only, very early in the morning,
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
& so undone. I’ve always tried. I-I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
left Henry to live on.
Though the Dream Songs follow the narrative of a man named Henry this is one of the ones that seems particularly biographical because Berryman did have a father that shot himself (my favorite explanation Berryman ever gave of how he can differentiate himself from Henry and say that the poems aren’t biographical is “Henry does not brush his teeth, unless I wrote that in there. I do.”)
So I was reading this poem and there was “Whitman on his tower” which I had never noticed before, and there was Henry touching his despair, which seemed to reflect the “whoever touches this book touches a man”. And while the poem is about a father’s suicide, I could begin to see it as a poem talking about Whitman as a poetic father and the complications that has caused for American poets.
So then I was going to try to find something about Whitman’s Tower on the internet but all I could find is this: Charles Whitman,the Texas tower sniper. So then I tried to find something about Walt Whitman’s tower, but all I could find were thoughts on the Walt Whitman bridge and WW Highschool. When I went back and read the article about Charles Whitman I found that his shooting occurred in 1966, three years before The Dream Songs were published. Also, his story seems to be a part of the poem I was reading and I had a shocking thought: can the name “Whitman” in a poem refer to someone who is not Walt Whitman. Even asking that question, I find myself saying yes, of course, but I guess the real question is-no matter the actual reference–is Walt Whitman so mythologized that the name Whitman has lost its ability to be specific to another person in a poem?
That’s fascinating. When I was reading that, I was thinking the same thing: what is Whitman’s tower? You do a great job of reading Whitman as a problematic poetic father into this poem, but you’re right: he might not be there at all.