AG: You had your hand raised?
Student: Was he popular in his life, Walt Whitman? Was he respected as a a..
AG: Yeah, somewhat. He was somewhat popular and respected. Once in a while, he’d go out and travel forth to Kansas, I think, by train, and write little poems and give little poetry readings to the Chamber of Commerce. I remember I went to Camden, two years ago, where he lived, to give a reading at Rutgers (University) and I was asked to go give a reading on the steps of a school-house that was going to be demolished for urban reconstruction, which the local people objected to, and so I read on that schoolhouse’s steps the very same poem that Whitman had read on that schoolhouse’s steps when he dedicated the school. So in Camden he was locally known. He was the good grey bard who would be called out to read on the steps of the new school a dedicatory poem.
Student: (And in) Camden (today) there’s a Walt Whitman bridge too.
AG: No, but he was asking about in his time.
AG: Of course there’s a Walt Whitman bridge in Camden. That was proposed many years ago, (I’d say about twenty years ago), but then someone in New York objected because Whitman was a homosexual and they thought it was a bad idea to have a Walt Whitman bridge. So it wound up that the bridge that was going to be named after him got named after another fairy, Joyce Kilmer! (because Kilmer was more closet – but then it was scandalous to discover that Kilmer was also a faggot! – You know, Kilmer was the one – “I think I will never see/ a poem lovely as a tree” – so he got the bridge named after him..)
Student: He was a war hero, Allen.
Student: In the First World War.
AG: Right. He had military closet(ed). So, out of the closet! Democracy out of the closet! (which is Whitman’s theme as a prophet) – [Allen then quotes Whitman – “Of the whole, Poems and Prose (not attending at all to chronological oder, and with the original dates and passing allusions in the heat and impression of the hour, left shuffled in, and indisturb’d), the chants of Leaves of Grass, my former Volume, yet serve as the indispensible deep soil, or basis, out of which, and out of which only, could come the roots and stems more definitely indicated by these later pages (While that Volume radiates Physiology alone, the present One, though of the like origin in the main, more palpably doubtless shows the Pathology which was pretty sure to come in time from the other” – Then he has a big, long footnote, which is a really remarkable statement, in which he says – “Then I meant Leaves of Grass, as published, to be a Poem of (Average) Identity, (of Yours, whoever you are, now reading these lines)….”..”A man is not (present) as victor in war, nor inventor or explorer, nor even in science, or in his intellectual or artistic capacity, or exemplar in some vast benevolence..”…”Something more..”..”To sing the song of that (law of average Identity), and of Yourself, consistently with the Divine Law of the (Universe), is (the) main intention of these Leaves” – So he’s made explanations. It’s all supposed to be about you or us or our own nature. But then he makes a really remarkable divagation – “Something more may be added – for, while I am about it, I would make a full confession, I also sent out Leaves of Grass to arouse and set flowing in men’s and women’s hearts, young and old, endless streams of living, pulsating love and friendship, directly from them to myself, now and ever. To this terrible, irrepressible yearning, (surely, more or less down underneath in most human souls), this never-satisfied appetite for sympathy, this boundless offering of sympathy, this universal democratic comradeship, this old, eternal, yet ever-new interchange of adhesiveness, so fitly emblematic of America, I have given in that book, undisguisedly, declaredly, the openest expression….
“Besides, as important as they are in my purpose as emotional expressions for humanity, the special meaning of the Calamus cluster of Leaves of Grass (and more or less running through the book and cropping out in Drum Taps), mainly resides in its Political significance. In my opinion, it is by a fervent, accepted development of Comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows, North and South, East and West – it is by this, I say, and by what goes directly and indirectly along with it, that the United States of the future, (I cannot too often repeat), are to be most effectively welded together, intercalated, anneal’d into a Living Union.”
That’s kind of an interesting proposition. Because, really, that is… huh?
AG: It’s a proposition. He’s making the same proposition as “Who touches this book touches a man”, which is the significance of that statement too. So he’s proposing that.. He says “man for man”, so, obviously this is Men’s Lib, and Women’s Lib is yet to come, though he pays lip-service to Women’s Lib occasionally – liberation of love woman-to-woman, as well as woman-to-man and man-to-woman – but his main proposition here is that the affections between men and men, which have been diverted into competitive capitalistic competition, so to speak, have to be altered. He’s proposing “adhesiveness” rather than competitiveness, and he’s defining it as erotic (or, at least, as emotional, and, in his poetry, often defining it as erotic). He gives quite a few glimpses (including the passage I read of (him) lying down and his friend tongue-ing his bosom and holding him from beard to toe – or the few moments of odd contact in bars, where some soul will stop and glance at him across the bar and sit holding hands with him for over an hour without saying a word). So I’m wondering.. I’m going to move to the end of his life to see how that idealism sustained itself..
Student: Last night, when you read this long poem [“Song of Myself”], I got the impression that you paid much more than lip-service to, say, the feminist approach. It struck me as an extremely feminist (poem), I suppose, emphasizing (the) feminine aspect of human nature.
AG: Well, he was emphasizing his own feminine nature, certainly, or he’s bringing that out.. So, in that sense, sure. But there is in him (as in my own writing probably) somewhat a preoccupation with the male body rather than the female body – and then, occasionally, he’ll remind himself that he’s leaving out… he’s trying to be all-inclusive, or he’s trying to proposition the men by proposing an all-inclusive universal affection, but he’s really interested in the men. That’s why he’s got to make it universal, so that men will extend their affection to men as well as women. But then he realizes he’s got to extend his affection to women now, as he’s asking men to extend their affection to the men. So every once in a while he’ll stop and say, “Well, women, too”, or “I also sing women”, or “I do propose that women and motherhood is the greatest!”
Student: No, but on a more profound level, (and on a more cosmic or religious level), he’s very much aware of the female.
AG: Yes, of course. Yes. Sure. Except, I’m just putting it on a very clear homosexual proposition. He’s already cosmic enough, he’s already cosmic. I was just trying to make it familiar in terms of our own experience.
[Audio for the above is available here (starting approximately nine minutes in, through to approximately nineteen minutes in]