Walt Whitman would be delighted with all the attention paid to him on his birthday. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if he were alive today, he’d blog more often than Neil Gaiman, post more selfies than James Franco, and have more Twitter followers than Lady Gaga. Years ago when I visited Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey – now a museum – then curator Margaret O’Neill told me the poet was very concerned with how he would be remembered. So much so, he spent over $4000 on a memorial tomb that he designed for himself. (By today’s standard, around a million dollars.)
I came to Whitman’s poetry late – Dead Poets Society late. But more so ten years later when I read Gary Schmidgall’s biography Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. I made a two-part radio program featuring the author and my visit to the poet’s home. Since then, his poetry has often infused my work. But to be honest, I’ve never been able to sit down and read my battered 500-page copy of his epic life’s work Leaves of Grass from beginning to end.
“What’s extraordinary about Leaves of Grass is the fact you can read any one of the nine different versions from start to finish,” novelist Michael Cunningham once told me. “You are equally welcome to simply read it in bits and pieces. It’s a multi-celled organism. It still works in any of its parts.”
In Whitman Illuminated, published this month by Tin House, artist Allen Crawford puts this idea beautifully into a visual form. But the opening of Whitman’s prose work Specimen Days reveals that when he finally sat down to write the collection, he approached his own material in much the same way.
If I do it at all, I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda, nature-notes, all bundled up and tied together by a big string… this day, this hour – to go home, untie the bundle, reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages, and let the (lack) of connections take care of themselves. It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow… May-be, if I don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed. – Specimen Days
“Whitman is the only American writer to have come close to succeeding in writing a book about everything,” says Cunningham. “A sort of catalogue of all the people and things in the world that he knew.”
I first met Michael Cunningham in 1996 when his novel Flesh and Blood was published in Dutch. A decade later, we met in Amsterdam. His new book then, also titled Specimen Days, was inspired by Whitman’s poetry. In between he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, part of which was written from Virginia Woolf’s point of view. I asked him if it was more challenging to get into the head of a suicidal British woman or the 19th century American poet with an eye for young lads.
“I didn’t set myself the task of getting into the head of Whitman,” Cunningham explained. “In this book, Whitman is more a presiding spirit, almost a benevolent ghost who haunts the book. So I use his poetry, which is as good an entry into his mind as anything a novelist might imagine.”
Cunningham’s Specimen Days is made up of three related sections, all set in New York City and each featuring a child or child-like character who recites Whitman verse. The first part takes place during the 19th century, at the height of the industrial revolution, and the poet makes a brief appearance on the streets of Manhattan.
“Whitman was a visionary poet,” the author explained. “He was writing about an America that existed 150 years ago at its apogee of promise. A nation that looked as if it was on its way toward being the most abundant, generous, accepting country the world had ever seen. Of course, the America that has developed 150 years later is very very different. One of the reasons I used Whitman in Specimen Days was for contrast. I knew I would be writing about a much darker, more difficult America, and I wanted to keep referring to the America that seemed poised on greatness about which Whitman was so enthusiastic.
I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole rest of the world,
I dream’d that was a new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest…
Cunningham began thinking about the book before 9/11. When he started writing, the world had changed. Past, present and future disasters abound in Specimen Days. The second part of the book is styled like a contemporary noir thriller and involves a group of child suicide bombers. Some critics objected to the sudden rash of post-9/11 fiction, saying it was too soon to write about such a cataclysmic event. “Nonsense,” said Cunningham. “The novelist’s job is to tell the story of particular lives in the midst of conflagration and enormous historical change.”
The last story is a post-apocalyptic vision of the city set 150 years in the future, where androids are fitted with poetry chips to add a moral sense to their existence. Walt Whitman, of course. “A surprising number of writers are turning to speculative fiction,” Cunningham noted. “I think it has something to do with the vast changes we’re on the brink of… Some of the most adventurous writing at the moment is science fiction – epic tales of imagination, philosophy and metaphysics. It’s one of the most promising directions 21st century literature is headed.”
I’m still thinking about the young poetry spouting android. This morning a post on Facebook led me to a video on YouTube of Steve Roggenbuck, a twenty-something “Whitmaniac” who reads from his so-called “walt whitman mixtape.” (See short sample below.) It’s kind of how my favorite Twitter follower functions. That would be Walt Whitman @TweetsOfGrass
“This is all my favorite Walt Whitman in one book,” Roggenbuck says. “Sometimes it’s cut up in ways that other Whitman books wouldn’t cut it up. I sometimes took my favorite poem, my favorite section of a poem, my favorite stanza sometimes. So, it’s in a different order than you might find in other places but this is all credited to Walt Whitman and is my favorite Walt Whitman stuff.”
Uncle Walt would be pleased as punch. At the start of my current work-in-progress, Whitman makes a brief appearance to a young wounded Civil War soldier. Whether the scene makes it to the final draft remains to be seen. But clearly I’m still influenced by the Good Grey Poet, as is a new generation of readers and writers. I’ll assume it was Whitman himself who chose the two lines of poetry that are quoted on his memorial tomb:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.