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WHAT WOULD WHITMAN DO - Peterson Toscano

WHAT WOULD WHITMAN DO - Peterson Toscano

These days I find comfort, guidance, and inspiration from the past. Faced with an uncertain future because of political, environmental, and social instability, I refuse to be shaken or destabilized. This is not our first rodeo. The future has, of course, always been uncertain.

These days I soak in Walt Whitman. Many know Whitman as the poet who created Leaves of Grass. His poetry was so radically different from anything that came before it, and because it was so scandalously revelatory about sexuality and bodies, it was frequently banned. In fact, Whitman did not even put his name on the original 1855 edition. Instead he included a drawing of himself with an open-collared shirt, hand on hip, looking jauntily at the reader. 

These days the words of Whitman speak to me, but it is his personal story that comforts and guides me. The rambling verses in Leaves of Grass did not simply appear out of thin air by an artist who displayed early promise. Whitman, born in 1819 to a working class Quaker family, was already in his mid-thirties when he self-published them. Up until then he struggled to keep a job or even stick to a profession. His teaching career was short-lived and shrouded in a mysterious scandal. He had a string of newspaper jobs and did typesetting at a series of print shops. He started businesses that went bust; he abruptly left one city for another. 

In his twenties his poetry was mediocre at best. Socially he presented himself as a fop who spent just about as much time critiquing opera-goers as he did watching the performances he reviewed in the papers. Scanning the crowd at one opera house, he later wrote of his fellow audience members, ”What an air of polished, high-bred, deliberate, heartless, bland, superb, chilling, smiling, repelling fashion.”

But beneath the bluster about opera fans, there was something beautiful here. Historian Gary Schmidgall suggests that it was Whitman’s encounters with opera which jarred Whitman awake to become the extraordinary artist who produced Leaves of Grass.

Despite poking fun at audience members, Whitman did enjoy opera. In fact, he allowed the artistry of the opera and its singers to move him. In Walt Whitman A Gay Life, Schmidgall references Whitman’s Letters from Paumanok, published in 1851. After hearing aperformance, Whitman was stirred:

Here is an author obsessed, ravished by the human voice—especially that of the tenor Bettini, whose “clear, firm, wonderfully exalting notes, film and expanding away, dwelling like a poised lark up in heaven, have made my very soul tremble.”

A year later Whitman heard another singer who shattered his soul. On an unseasonably hot New York City summer night in 1852 Whitman had an encounter with a woman. She moved him not as a lover, not with this man, although later Whitman revealed that something masculine in her stout, fat body and short boyish haircut had attracted him. What shook Whitman that night was not love but art in the form of a voice, the voice of Madame Marietta Alboni, the great Italian opera singer on her triumphant American tour.  

Whitman had heard nothing like this before. Without flare, Alboni sang with clarity and strength. As Whitman listened, his creative soul shook. This was pure art. Not the trite shallow stuff he had written as a young man. That night Whitman had an apocalypse - not a catastrophe, as in its popular definition, but something more like the original Greek meaning: a revelation, as if a curtain had been pulled back and one sees what has been hidden, a vision that jars one awake. That night Walt Whitman awoke. He quit his job, left the city, settled into a personal breakdown, and wrote feverishly. 

Three years later he self-published Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman found his voice at last. He took his role as a prophetic poet seriously, and likely would have kept his hands covered in ink until he faced a second apocalypse. In 1861, six years after he first published Leaves of Grass, the American Civil War began. By its end in 1865 over 600,000 soldiers died, the largest number of US American military fatalities in any conflict before or since. 

Whitman was a pacifist, and while visiting his wounded brother in an army hospital, surrounded by the groaning anguish of war-mangled young men, seeing hundreds of amputees and boys dying from infected wounds, his eyes opened to the need around him. He wrote that he felt “a profound conviction of necessity.” 

For the remainder of the war years, he volunteered as a nurse, visiting soldiers in army hospitals—writing letters for them, bringing small gifts of food and books, sitting by their bedsides, holding them as they died in his arms, providing comfort however possible. 

In the war diaries he later published, Whitman wrote: 

These Hospitals, so different from all others - these American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, well they open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, showing our humanity, tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, to him, what are your dramas and poems?

Whitman was not forsaking his art. Rather he was recognizing that there are times when art is not enough, a time when we have to get our hands dirty, when artists need to take a stand with our bodies. This is the tension that tugs at many artists who feel the need to go inward and artfully explore while all the time there are pressing needs around; we see family, friends, and strangers suffering. These propel us out of our sanctuaries into the flesh and blood of the world we try so hard to understand. For me this often feels like a messy affair of inadequacy as I fumble to give comfort and care. While the services I offer to the grieving, the sufferer, the person waylaid by a storm or injustice does not reflect the thoughtful, polished art I so much aspire to create, perhaps this physical manifestation of my concern, the “profound conviction of necessity,” the word made flesh, is art in itself. As Whitman reveals, we can enter a process of transfiguration in which our bodies become the poetry. 

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

These days I feel the crush of disasters and battles all around us. Mega storms smash into US cities in the South, Southwest, and islands in the Caribbean. Extreme heat and wildfires rage in the West and Northwest. Undocumented residents throughout the US are despised and rejected by the federal government. White supremacists boldly parade bigotry and racism. Transgender people in the military, in public restrooms, on the job are subjected to being dehumanized and attacked. I sit in my study and wonder, “To these what are your dramas and poems?” Where must I show up? Art, like faith, without works, is dead. So we act. We open our homes. We give our time, efforts, and money to join the struggles rocking our world or in many cases affecting our own lives and security. 

These days to ground myself and to find hope I look to the past, to examples like Whitman, but the poet, who once also served as a nurse, prods me to look ahead, to imagine a simple, stable day many years from now. In his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman stands on the deck of a ferry early in the morning and then as the sun goes down. He then travels ahead into the future, into our present and beyond. It is like he is looking through a spyglass and sees you and me when he writes, “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.” He sees us not as victims or as heroes, rather as earthlings free to find pleasure in being ferried across a body of water.

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, 

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, 

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

Whitman reminds me of the illusion of time when it comes to our imagination and our art. “What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” He provokes and encourages me to see a future that is not deluged by the present but is instead filled with earthlings who benefit from the successes we are about to achieve in these dangerous days.  

These days one can become overwhelmed and weary from the weight of it all. Yet in spite of all this, with each blow, individuals and communities wake up. People are experiencing apocalypse—that jarring, life changing revelation and a profound conviction of necessity. Right now the poets, healers, and change agents are taking their places. 

Peterson Toscano is a playwright, actor, bible scholar and gay activist. Find him at www.petersontoscano.com

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