Thursday, May 30, 2019

Walt Whitman, America's Great Poet and Gay Pioneer, Was Born 200 Years Ago

Walt Whitman outside the Brooklyn Eagle Newspaper in 1854

This post has been authored by Ryce Skytower

Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892), America's great poet, father of free verse, and gay pioneer was born 200 years ago, on May 31, in the pretty town of Huntington, Long Island, New York. Huntington is also the town where I spent my teenage years, and as you can imagine, the entire town is celebrating in grand style today. I thought I would write this post. 

Whitman's poem, Oh Captain My Captain!, an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, expressed the sorrow of the American people for the most tragic single event in the history of the nation -- his assassination upon the ending of the Civil War in 1865. We cannot imagine the grief of the nation in losing their father and leader. Every American schoolchild up until recent times knows this poem.

Tom O'Bedlam recites the mournful poem on YouTube:

Walt Whitman, more controversially for some, but quite explicitly in his writings and poems, is America's great gay literary pioneer. Now, before we continue on this line of thought, the term "homosexual" was not first used until 1869, let alone the terms LGBTQ and any of their modern derivatives. In fact, if Walt called himself "gay" and openly admitted as such, he would probably have ended up in prison, in an insane asylum, or worst. How can we claim he was a gay pioneer -- besides the fact that he never married and he lived openly with several men, including most notably Peter Doyle, who we today would call his long-term partner.

The answer is his poetry, both published and unpublished. There are many volumes and web sites listing his many poems and writing about the subject, many of which remained unpublished in his lifetime because of their erotic nature. Let me give you a few excerpts here:

Walt Whitman and his "intimate companion" Peter Doyle

by Walt Whitman, 1848

Whitman visited New Orleans at the age of 29 and had one hell of time apparently. Who wouldn't want to go to the Big Easy after reading this poem?

Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met
there who detain'd me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together--all else has long
been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

From 100 Years Ago -- Commemorating Walt - "Resist Much, Obey Little"

by Walt Whitman, 1859

Whitman dreams of a scene from a like Barcelona or San Francisco today:

I dreamed in a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers,
I saw them tenderly love each other—
I  often saw them, in numbers, walking hand in hand;
I dreamed that was the city of robust  friends—
Nothing was greater there than the quality of manly love— it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
and in all their looks and words.—

Calamus, Written to Peter Doyle, America's First Great Gay Poem

by Walt Whitman 1860 - 61

Whitman's most famous homoerotic works written to his lover, Peter Doyle:

And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming,
O then I was happy,
O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, 
and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend,
And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me  whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.

A proposal to paint the Walt Whitman Bridge linking Camden & Philadelphia 

by Walt Whitman, 1867

Whitman gets very descriptive here, this would be condemned as obscene during his lifetime:

I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

This is the press of a bashful hand—this is the float and odor of hair;
This is the touch of my lips to yours—this is the murmur of yearning;a
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face;
This is the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.

Walt with Bill Duckett, his companion in his older years

by Walt Whitman, 1892 (revised)

Whitman, at the end of his life, writes some of his most profound and accepting poetry:

His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hip-band,
His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of his polish’d and perfect limbs.

The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him;)
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and

Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!

Ethan Hawke reciting Walt Whitman in 1989's Dead Poets Society

Walt Whitman's messages of  democracy, individuality, inclusiveness and acceptance are arguably as relevant today as they were in the 1800s. 
The late Robin Williams famously explained the importance of Walt Whitman, in the 1989 Dead Poet's Society, of which he is a central figure.  Many screening of this great film will happen tonight as a tribute to Walt, and I plan to see it, especially since young Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard were so outstanding in there  breakout role. I am sure Walt would heartily approve!

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