For National Poetry Month, Conundrum Press has asked our poets and writers to offer their thoughts on poetry. We will be publishing reflections throughout the month.
This spring I have been re-reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. The sweeping catalogs of nineteenth-century American life and New World audacity and mysticism have hooked me. What I like about Whitman’s poem is the way it challenges us to trust our own experience, urges us to loaf and live, recognize ourselves in each other, and “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” as if these houses, social constructs, ideologies, habits, and histories we live in are in need of some serious remodeling.
Yes, this April, Whitman inspires me. I sit in my office. I grade student papers. I look out the window at the wet spring snow on the green shoots of lilacs in the backyard, and I think, yes, that good, gray poet was onto something. I am grateful to be reading him again.
I have to admit, though, I did not always feel this way. In college, reading Whitman was an academic exercise. In graduate school, reading Leaves of Grass felt obligatory. I looked at that picture of the Bard of Brooklyn with his broad-brimmed hat, flowing white beard, and earnest eyes on the cover of my Norton Critical Edition, and I was unmoved. Okay, the truth is, Whitman bored me.
This spring something has changed. When everyone in my house is asleep, I open up Song of Myself. I do the same thing, riding the bus to work or sitting in a waiting room. I have even liked the Walt Whitman Facebook page, so every once in a while a great story about the poet or one of his poems appears on my newsfeed. So what gives? Why this unanticipated fervor? Well, I am not sure, really. What I can say is that in my lifelong passion for poetry I have always sought poems that, as Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I wanted poems whose delicious diction looked at the world askew, from an angle, indirectly. I wanted poems that glistened with the antic, quicksilver sheen of modernity, poems that knew the world was conjured by our imaginations, our minds; that the world we lived in was a world of skyscrapers and airplanes, technical marvels suspended on unseen currents of air.
But reading Whitman is different. Song of Myself uses direct, declamatory language. “I will go by the bank of the wood and become undisguised and naked,” Whitman says, or “The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well.” Stripped of any Romantic iambs, Song of Myself captures American speech rhythms. Its music is not the compressed, structured, tense economy of Keats; it is the wild, sinuous, clunky, slaphappy music that mimics the open road, the bustling, anything-can-happen confidence that characterizes much of the nineteenth-century American experience. In that regard, the poem is modern. But it is also plainspoken and unadorned. It offers us its bouquet of rustic authenticity.
For me though, my newfound passion for Whitman goes further. It contains something more personal and intimate, more existential and galactic—something more urgent, too. I am older now. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge. I still do not understand it, but reading Song of Myself connects me to the fragile, shifting, impermanent texture of my life and the life of the world around me. For the first time, I think I am ready for Whitman. For my entire life, Whitman loomed as a shadowy monument of poetic achievement. His grand poems appeared on the horizon, teasing me, inviting me, but I was not ready.
But then eighteen months ago, my mother, whom I loved deeply, died unexpectedly, and I did not have the chance to say goodbye to her. In February, my father had a heart attack. If the paramedics had arrived a minute or two later, he would not have made it, and I would not have been able to speak with him or express my love for him. This spring, reading Walt Whitman has been a lifeline to all that matters. Song of Myself has reminded me of what a gift it is, what a surprising, unexpected, and spectacular gift it is to be human—to connect with the people, fellow travelers, around me. That sprawling, unwieldy, gargantuan, indulgent and yet generous poem has inspired me to keep reading and writing—and most of all, to live. I carry it with me wherever I go. It rests in my bag. I put it on my desk. It perches on the counter. It sits on the bed, on the nightstand, on a cereal bowl. And every once in a while, I share passages with my wife. But most importantly, I pick it up, open the pages, and read. I luxuriate in its outrageous music and perceptions, its earthy, indelicate words and its mystery.
And that is why we continue to read poetry, isn’t’ it? That is why it still speaks to us, calls us. All it asks is that we find a quiet space and listen. All it asks is that we are open.
A few days ago, I called my father who just had open-heart surgery and was recuperating in a hospital. He told me a story about regaining consciousness and waking up in the cardiac ICU the day after the operation. At the time, visiting hours were over. My dad’s wife and my brother had gone home, and the room was dark except for the dim, beeping machines that surrounded him. After a nurse noticed my dad stirring. She brought him a ginger ale. My dad lay there, propped up in bed for the next couple of hours, sipping his drink.
He described how he rested there alone, attentive, observing, and contemplating. Ever since then, I have imagined flying to my father’s bedside so I could hold his hand, sitting with him in that silence and taking in that strange, elemental moment of being human. It may sound strange, but I have also imagined reading Walt Whitman to him—the retired banking executive, my father—he and I together, after so much has happened, sharing the words of this nourishing, magical poet.
Dr. Sigman Byrd is the author of two books of poetry, “Wake Up, Sleepwalker“ (Conundrum Press, 2014) and “Under the Wanderer’s Star“ (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006), which won the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and the University of Colorado’s Eaton Faculty Award. He is an instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder in their writing and rhetoric program.
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