I’m sure Walt Whitman still loves you, even if my faith is shaken. To paraphrase Emerson, you were a poem in his eyes; your ample geography dazzled his imagination, and he hurried to capture you in verse.
If you go back to “Song of Myself,” you can see how much he loves you. You are the little one who sleeps in the cradle, the youngster and the red-faced girl on the bushy hill. You are the suicide in the bedroom and the sick man in the hospital. You are the runaway slave and the twenty-eight young men who bathe by the shore. Most of all, you are the one he invites to loaf with him in the grass; you are the one who “settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d over upon me,/ And parted my 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.”
America, Walt Whitman has loved you as his very soul. When you laid dying on the battlefield, he searched you out and held your hand. When you opened the letter that said your son wasn’t coming home, he stood quietly next to your daughter and grieved with you. When you were unjust, he reminded you of your better self. When you celebrated, he sang with you.
Who, America, beside Walt Whitman, knows all your worst things, and loves you anyway? Who else sees you as you are and pushes you towards greatness? “One song, America,” he says. If he could give us anything, he’d give directions; he’d “show, away ahead, thy real Union, and how it may be accomplish’d.”
America, how come you don’t love Walt Whitman back? When you reached to his beard and reached to his feet, were you only teasing? Was Allen Ginsberg onto something when he asked, “Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-/ teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit / poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank / and stood watching the boat disappear on the black / waters of Lethe?”
America, are you not yet mythic enough for Walt Whitman?
Ginsberg loved Whitman, of course, and would have loved him more, I’m sure, had he had the opportunity. Sorry, America. As you know, this is quite serious, and not the time to be making jokes about either poet’s ways of passing the time.
But what can you do at this point, if not joke? The time for stirring speeches and odes to our greatness is passed or not yet arrived. “America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?” The questions Ginsberg asks us—“America when will you be angelic?” “Why are your libraries full of tears?”—are unbearable, the answers untenable, and the only way to address them is to make light of them. To ask “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?” To admit “I smoke marijuana every chance I get.”
So, America, that’s where I’m at. I’m thinking about the man who loved you silly and the man who loved you in spite of your silliness. I’m wondering how you can imagine either of them standing on a smoking bank, watching Charon fade from view, and not love them back. I’m wondering how come you want to defend marriage against Walt Whitman. And I’m wondering just how many of us “stroll dreaming of the lost America of love.”
But I’m keeping encouraged, hard as it is. Walt Whitman, great lover of America, says “Missing me one place, search another; / I stop somewhere waiting for you.”