Walt Whitman at 202
By Adam Katz
I guess most school-age kids read “O Captain, my Captain” at some point. Looking back at it now, it’s a poem you have to read quickly, I think. The line “O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red” does not really admit slowing down and analyzing. But like so many things Whitman writes, the line is musical, and most music sounds ridiculous when played at the wrong tempo. If all I got from that poem is the fact that it is fun to read out loud, that is enough.
Fast forward to college; junior year, in fact. I took a class called “The American Long Poem,” which, frankly, was a revelation. Not only did it kindle a lifelong love of Hart Crane and a deep respect for Gwendolyn Brooks, but it was my first time through Song of Myself, and, perhaps more importantly, my first time through “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” I had been a friend of the Beat poets since high school, so Whitman’s sensuality did not exactly scandalize me. But there is something to be said for doing a thing just right. Whitman, to me, is different from most other poets in the English language. The length of the line is calibrated to the length of the human breath; the density of the line appears calibrated to Whitman’s understanding of how people think, at what rate people are likely to process what they read or recite. The result is that I feel more at home in my body when I am reciting Whitman than doing most other things. Just the feeling of the air entering and leaving my body—a feeling I am never more aware of than when I’m reading poetry out loud—can be an experience of such electricity and intimacy as would take a lifetime to parse just for my own understanding, and another lifetime to describe to someone else.
Reading “When Lilacs Last,” especially out loud, is something else. The first four stanzas barely connect to each other: the first is about the sunset, or perhaps the evening star; the second is about the lilacs; the third, about a thrush singing from its home in the swamp; and the fourth is about Lincoln’s coffin (though Lincoln is never named) traveling around the country so people could pay their respects. An initial thought is how deeply grounded these images are in personal experience. Being from the same area as Whitman, there are lilacs not 25 feet from where I write these lines. They are spectacular… while they last, which is, fittingly, not long. Like a sonata announcing its separate themes at the beginning of the piece—no, more like a concerto grosso by Bach, or a jazz combo, we see these four soloists onstage at the beginning of the piece—star, branch, bird, bier—but we don’t know whose voice will soar above the rest. The themes feel as if they are simultaneously harmonizing and competing. Some of the stanzas are short and poignant:
Sing on there in the swamp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain’d me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.
While some of the stanzas are long and free. The bird in particular seems to favor short passages that have their say in the fewest possible words. Until…
Come lovely and soothing death,Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.
All I can say is: you have to try it out loud. I’m not someone who enjoys death. I never had a proper goth phase. It wasn’t until long after I fell in love with this poem for its own sake that I came to terms with the fact that death is in every piece of writing. So no, I wasn’t looking for a poem about death to obsess over, but I got one, because there is something about a poet who just gets it absolutely right—no matter what it is. When Whitman’s thrush transcends death in this moment, we all do, if only for a moment. The only passage I can think of that is comparable in its beauty, specifically in its ability to transform the dread of death into something joyful and creative and sustaining, is this one:
Come, night, come, Romeo, come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when a’ shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
I would wager Whitman learned his craft from passages like this one. Both passages have the same fussy preoccupation with an image that doesn’t come off as fussy in recital; they come off as building image upon image, piece upon piece; musical and ecstatic and affectionate and grief-stricken all at once.
Maybe I’m repeating myself (if so, Whitman would approve) but it’s good to read poetry, particularly out loud. Reading a good poem out loud is like taking a good bath; like falling asleep and waking up by someone’s side; like eating just the right amount of something that was cooked just right. It’s an experience that involves the whole body. Something that never ceases to amaze me about Whitman is how sensuality, for him, is at once something serious and something playful, maybe because everything is at least potentially sensuous to him, and sensuality is always in dialogue with death.
I don’t know why I let him in all those years ago, but Whitman was the first poet who was able to get through to me in my haze of untreated anxiety and other issues and say: look around you; don’t take any of this for granted, because even though this is all you get, it’s enough.