Hangin’ With Uncle Walt

He was quite the dashing fellow back in the day!

So, up to this point in my life, my Walt Whitman experience has pretty much been limited to a section from 9th grade Honors English (a long time ago…) and several (!) viewings of Dead Poets Society (one of my all time favorite movies). The “barbaric yawp” scene between Robin Williams and a (teeny-tiny baby) Ethan Hawke still gives me shivers. Interestingly, said English class was taught by my own Mr. Keating of sorts, Mr. Bean. I haven’t watched the film in a while. I should. I have the video. This semester, for my 19th Century American Lit class, we read “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass (the original 1855 edition), including Whitman’s preface. Here now is very general, yet positive review: Amazing stuff!

For my response for class in January, I reflected on the lessons Uncle Walt (as Robin Williams called him in DPS) teaches us:

On the surface, what may seem to be self involved praise of himself and his profession as a poet, quickly dives into extremely inclusive territory. We are all poets. In the preface, he writes that we all have the power to think “thoughts [that] are the hymns of the praise of things” and that “the poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist.”

Through poetry, he gives valuable life lessons. The preface passage which struck me most begins with “This is what you shall do.” He instructs us to “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms….” Etc. He continues these lessons in the poem itself: “Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?” He tells us that embracing the great artist in all of us, “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them yourself.” And later: “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen, And accrue what I hear into myself and let the sounds contribute toward me.” In some ways these lessons remind me of a 19th century version of Sark’s “How to be an Artist.” She writes, “Make friends with freedom and uncertainty. Look forward to dreams. Cry during movies.”

While I was drawn to the personal and artistic lessons, one of my classmates wrote about how Whitman reminds us that these individual freedoms and expressions are so much tied to what it means to be an American, what it is that makes our democracy what it is, and how poetry was Whitman’s perfect way of expressing it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure our democracy has ever reached the status of what it could & should be in the eyes of Whitman. Have we truly listened to Uncle Walt? Have we all embraced all classes, professions, and races as he does in the poem?

For my recent mid-term paper, I continued my investigations into the poem. The assignment was to basically do a close read of a primary source with light to no research. Just come up with an argument and prove it with evidence from the text. While some of my classmates thrive on the research, I found it refreshing to just bond with the poem. Just me and Uncle Walt. The images of rugged masculinity and sexuality run rampant throughout the work. I know this isn’t real news–the poem’s been around–but I guess I’m finally just getting around to knowing this. These lines in Section 24 make me swoon:

Divine am I inside and out, and make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

My paper covered the connection in the poem between homosexuality and the divine. I think I found some pretty solid evidence (though I just turned in the paper, so we’ll see if my prof agrees…. Hi, Jake!) Of course, I admit to being slightly biased and perhaps reading into things what I’m looking for with little research about the period’s views on sexuality. Perhaps I can incorporate all that into my final paper.

I like that grad school really lets one build something. There’s a through line. Not that there wasn’t in undergrad–but lawd that was a long time ago. I guess it’s the freedom to really find something that interests us and then run away with it.

It’s been fun hanging out with Uncle Walt. I feel a connection with a literary and personal past that doesn’t happen with every author. Good times. I’ll have to keep up with it. You know, along with everything else. But it’s a start. 🙂

Okay, so while looking for the linked scene above, I found this clip which edits together footage of the film into a video for Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I Breathe?”

Anyone who wants more homo erotic subtext to the film may have it here. It’s a good clip–and I give props to those who have the editing skills, time, patience, etc. for all that.


UPDATE June 9, 2008: I’m seriously bummed that this video is no longer available. 🙁

UPDATE August 20, 2017: Looked for it again; no dice. 🙁

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