(As if saying goodbye to Whitman wasn’t enough, I had to go and listen to the recording of Ginsberg reading Howl and A Supermarket in California. Thanks, guys 😛 )
As we draw toward the end of the semester, it becomes increasingly important to take a step back from the more particular tasks of uncovering discrepancies between versions of Leaves of Grass, analyzing speakers in various poems, placing Whitman in an historical context, etc. (which can all become consuming as Whitman has so much to offer in these areas) and instead turn our eyes toward Whitman’s legacy, his stamp on the world. In doing so, it is amazing how much larger and completely consuming he becomes, which is a feat for a poet who already “contain[s] multitudes.”
Throughout Andrew C. Higgins’s essay, “The Poet’s Reception and Legacy,” it is made clear that Whitman’s influence was and is everywhere, in every type of artist as well as in those outside of the art world. Among his readers are those like Ginsberg who idolize and welcome him as a catalyst of change and an embracer of beauty, and there are those like T.S. Eliot who wish to extricate Whitman’s political self from his artistic self and deny his influence in the writing world. Despite these polar opposite opinions, it is evident that Whitman’s effect, whatever it may be, did not go unnoticed. He succeeded and succeeds today in reaching people across time and place even from the grave. This can only be attributed to the fact that during his lifetime he refused to conform to the mandates of a dying country and he insisted with all of his might upon a true United States of America.
In pouring over the modern and contemporary poetry we read for this week, I was completely awestruck, not because of the quality and power behind the poetry itself, (though undoubtedly that was part of it) but due to the realization that Whitman’s influence was and is in so many more places than I ever imagined. It is striking to me that a man and poet I knew little of before this semester is in many ways the wellspring of some of my favorite writers – Ginsberg and Rich, for instance. In the third part of Ginsberg’s Howl, he writes, “I’m with you in Rockland / where we hug and kiss the United States under / our bedsheets the United States that coughs all / night and won’t let us sleep” and I cannot think of another line in contemporary poetry where I see and feel Whitman more clearly.
Throughout his life Whitman wrote of this “sick” America that suffered from a lack of unity and a lack of individual love and connection. He fought against the American tendency to grow complacent or violent in the face of such an illness and desired above all else to live in a country that grows in and through each of its members. Whitman’s America lives today in the hospitals with young men and women dying and fighting to live for it. It celebrates the delicate intimacy between “comrades” whether male or female or black or white or rich or poor. Whitman’s America recognizes the poverty and despair that plague it but will not stay silent, will not die out. And Whitman’s America, my America, no matter the age, will not rest until it is truly a nation founded on and for freedom.