Walt Whitman spent his final years in a two-story, wood-frame house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, less than half a mile’s walk from the Delaware River, though in those days, after his debilitating stroke, he’d have been pushed there in his wheelchair by an attendant. Mickle Street long ago became Mickle Boulevard, then Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare that funnels drivers through an inner city’s battered edge toward attractions along the river, south of the Walt Whitman Bridge: a ferry dock, a bandshell for concerts, an aquarium with jellyfish and sharks.
The street was bristling with life the year of my first visit, 1996, though the towering Camden County Correctional Facility—windowless, anonymous brick—rose just across the street from the yellow clapboards of the poet’s house. What message was intended, to the boys and young men diving after each other in mock battles, playing basketball on the edge of the street, hanging out on stoops or narrow porches outside the rowhouse doors? Whitman’s place seemed set apart, as though it breathed the quieter air of another day, and the neighbors ignored it.
The house, now a museum operated by the state, keeps limited hours. You ring the bell and, if it’s an open day, are admitted by a docent, pay an admission fee, and are offered a pamphlet about the poet and his history. I hear that the place has been polished a bit in the twenty years since my visit and has more of a professional sheen. But the way it looked then is indelible—in part because when I went back, not long ago, I’d forgotten to call ahead, and the place was closed. I had to content myself with looking around outside, and noticing how many of the neighboring houses were gone now, grassy lots in their place. The people were gone, too, though the jail façade had lost none of its faceless solidity.
No matter, really, that I’d found the doors locked; I could remember that first time. I loved the honey-colored light filtered through the shades, and his leather backpack, wonderfully crumpled. The old man’s bed upstairs, heaps of books and papers on the floor around it just as he might have left them. Not, I’m a little embarrassed to report, unlike the floor of my own writing studio, where chaos can hold sway for some time before the rage to order coincides with the time to actually do something about it. The few rooms open to visitors were occupied by display cases filled with rather dutifully framed documents: letters from important persons, newspaper clippings, and invitations to banquets in the poet’s honor, complete with menus.
Across the river that long-ago morning, in the American Literature Collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, a helpful librarian cheered me on, pressing into my hands Isadora Duncan’s copy of Leaves of Grass. The famous bohemian had danced these poems, as it were, found in them the pulse of her own freedom and nerve. She styled herself as a “Barefoot Classical Dancer,” emulating poses on Grecian urns and the Parthenon friezes with an unrestrained physicality, an exuberant, “natural” sort of movement. Though she was detained on Ellis Island with her new husband, the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, and denounced in Washington as a “Bolshevik hussy,” she launched an American tour, and in 1922 danced barefoot in Cleveland in Attic costume, one breast bared. The young Hart Crane was in the audience that evening; the poet wrote to a friend that among all who attended, he was the sole spectator who had applauded.
Walt Whitman, Isadora Duncan, Hart Crane: could a list of artists be more American? Visionaries, outsiders and exiles, sexual pioneers, half-cracked, devoted wholeheartedly to unconventional notions of beauty, each longed for community and kindred spirits, and each stood mostly alone. They created the template of the American artist, who stands, as E.M. Forster wrote of the great Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, “at a slight angle to the universe.” Ignored, often reviled in their own times, they’ve come now to embody them; their singular lights turn out to have been illuminating the way ahead all along. Add to their number Joseph Cornell, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks (a far more experimental poet than she’s generally thought to be), Jack Spicer, Eileen Myles, and trace the sturdy vine of an American tradition. What can be seen from the margin—from Brooklyn Ferry or its inheritor the Bridge, from the unexpected vistas available from the Acropolis or Ghost Ranch, the florid modernism of a Paris salon or cheap East Village rooms in the 1970s—makes its way toward the center, opening pathways for a larger culture.
But it was hard, that afternoon in the cluttered house on Mickle Boulevard, to feel any sort of vitality transmitted forward. Whitman’s family had left nearly all his possessions in the house. Too many mementos of the public life, stuff that might have gone into the scrapbook or attic of an elder poet wanting to be reminded who he once was. (Before you hear too much of a snarl in that comment, be aware that I have boxes of such material myself.)
I moved from one scrap of paper to another, feeling my interest drift. I heard the raucous banging from the street, the yawps of kids, the skittering pops of firecrackers. It was high summer, after all. Why linger in the archive, pages grown yellow in the warm amber leaking through the window shades? If you want me again, the poet had written, look for me under your bootsoles. What could be the point in wandering here, among these dry bits of evidence, looking for—what?
Then, on the topmost shelf in a glass display case, what I’d never have expected: a stuffed bird, a bit dilapidated, but poised and alert as taxidermy could manage. A deep, pleasing green. A conure maybe, a lorikeet, some sort of small parrot? He looked cheerfully and expectantly out at the world forever from a wooden box sealed with a pane of glass of its own, as though he were the occupant of a construction by Joseph Cornell. His eyes were glass, the liquid originals long lost to time. Firmly dead as he was, maybe all the more so for having been made immortal, he was nonetheless the first sign of the actual life lived here.
Intimate moment, breathing air.
I hear the little fellow’s no longer on exhibit; a friend who’d gone especially to see him told me the bird had been moved to storage, or sent off for restoration. Moldering, perhaps, after all those years. I stared into his box. I thought of him climbing up a wool-sleeved arm toward Walt’s shoulder, where he could sit there above the famous open collar. Then I did something I imagine we all do far more than is usually acknowledged: I slipped out of myself for a moment. I was looking through the eyes of that green friend when those eyes were still living gel. I saw the pinkish, wrinkled skin of a robust old man’s neck, right before me, comforting, and suddenly I could smell his warm skin, dusted with talc from his bath.
I don’t mean that I saw Walt Whitman’s ghost, not exactly; I have never quite made up my mind as to what of any individual self might go on after death. I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation, neither an erasure nor something to fear, though it’s difficult to hold on to that perception. But whatever becomes of us, surely every life creates echoes afterward, both in the physical world and in the intangible one. The dead reappear, in memory; I see something that reminds me of my mother (a silver bracelet embedded with a mosaic of turquoise, the kind of cracked or mossy flowerpots that appeared in her paintings) and some aspect of her affections, her interests, is with me now, forty years since she’s been gone. We know that energy cannot be destroyed, but goes shape-shifting through the world. What was once in some portion that star is me now, and later I may be some strong supporting cells in the neck of an August lily, or the glint in the stem of a new-blown piece of glass. If our lot is mutability of form, then why be surprised that our energies might not be refracted and recurrent in the world: Walt Whitman looking back through light caught in a stuffed bird’s convex, artificial eye?
The dead persist audibly in language. My parents’ Southern figures of speech show up sometimes in my own: She hopped on that like a hen on a june bug. I don’t, in fact, know what a june bug is, and am not sure I’ve ever seen one, but the phrase has lodged in me, in my lexicon, one of the places past and future are distinctly, inextricably interwoven.
Interwoven seems the right word for the way the language of poetry remains in the awareness of readers. Years of reading Whitman have led to the permanent presence of his voice in my physiology; dozens of phrases of his rise up in me, unbidden: I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world; it is not upon you alone the dark patches fell; I considered long and seriously of you before you were born; I might not tell anybody, but I will tell you. I could go on—and reader, I will.
A poet is made, for us, of words, become so translated into the substance of speech as to dwell there, a presence caught in the prismatic, permanent life of lines and stanzas and memorable phrases, like the bubble of air captured in that most elegantly named of tools, the spirit level. What is it, then, when I see, as if looking right through that language I have internalized, the shoulder and arm of a man emerged, a hundred and fifty years ago, from his bath? Time avails not, Whitman wrote, distance avails not. Nothing too far away, nothing too long ago.
Does seeing an apparition come with a responsibility? Gift or summons, what might this echo of Walt Whitman want of me? There may be many answers to that question, but I’d begin with this one, the same thing he wanted from us when he was living: company.
I mean that seriously. What poet ever addressed his readers so often and so directly? A digital scan of his work reveals that the single word most used in his poetry is not the I we might have expected but you. The spiraling, edgeless “Song of Myself,” his first great poem, ends I stop somewhere waiting for you. He waits for us because his poem requires us, because it is no ordinary poem, in the usual sense of an aesthetic object complete in itself. It is a poem, a remarkable one, but it’s also a call to change our way of seeing self and other, a persuasive text that aims to revise our understandings of the most basic things. The poem wants to accompany us in the direction of awakening. If it were written by practically anyone else it could seem monumentally arrogant, the product of an ego without bounds, but Whitman instructs us that I am not contained between my hat and my bootsoles; this is the voice of a self without limit. And such a self must include, by nature, you.
You are included, from the beginning. Why be surprised, then, if a long-dead poet appears on an August afternoon, freshly bathed as he liked to be, and you catch a glimpse of his living body through the eyes of a companion bird he loved? If you, through some quirk of presence, are even allowed the scent of his warm, just-powdered skin?
Of the many poets I love, none has haunted me as Walt Whitman has. I want to keep company with him, want to account for his persistent presence in my life. And I want to try, at the same time, to seek out the wellsprings of the extraordinary flowering that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of his life, in poems that look, sound, and think like nothing else before them. They have already reshaped American poetry, and the poetry of other countries and continents as well, but they have not yet finished their work of recasting our sense of what it means to be oneself, to be anyone at all.
Excerpted from What is the Grass, © Mark Doty, 2020. First published by W. W. Norton & Company