Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Walt Whitman, Lover Man

Every since high school, I've had this big Walt Whitman component in me. Not the gay part, just the flowing language, the expounded grief, the ecstacy laid bare, a sensuous sort of honor to be alive thing, the elegaic, body and soul sort of patriotism part.

In high school, I came up with a pen name for myself: Lawrence Ouray Whitman.

As if Lawrence Walker weren't good enough. The Ouray was for a famous Ute Indian chief and one of the most spectacular little alpine towns in Colorado, famous for its surrounding steep canyons and waterfalls and old mining roads that had become awesome Jeep trails. The Whitman was for Whitman.

I'm Type W in a Type A nation.

In my junior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, my mentor, Mrs. Ebby, Kay Ebby, was so enamored with my poetry and my passion for American lit that she gave me, carte blanche, a whole page in the school paper, The Reveille, to do with whatever I wanted. I titled the page, after a Whitman poem: "I Sing the Body Electric."

Now we all sample a few lines of Whitman in high school, but did you bring all of your senses to Whitman? Did you feel and taste his words? For most, it's just a brief burst of old-fashioned words. If you were lucky, at least you thought they were vaguely horny. But let a few more decades pass to middle age. Not many of us Americans go through life feeling their Whitmanesque nature. Whitman was about as bohemian as it gets, and bohemians have always been a rare fringe element in this culture. And Texas, where I read Whitman, Texas isn't known for its poets, much less poets of long-winded rhapsodies to others' bodies, male, female, planetary, universal. Cowboy country is not known for boys who are a strange mix, both brash and bashful, boistrous yet repressed, timid in the gate yet inside rearing to go out onto the open road, boys and then young men and then men who love words and ideals and roller coaster emotions.

Whitmanesque men make better lovers, I'll tell you that. Not better husbands or fathers, mind you, but better lovers in words and deeds and adventures, lovers with plots and symbols and rituals and longing and lingering and taking the time to pay attention and do it right.

As a man or as a woman, you've got to be living more in the now to appreciate that, much less put it on a pedestal, enthralled by this sort of evocative sensuousness. It's literary loving, or loving that is literary, truly as if the two were nearly one in the same.

All of this relates, somehow, to my last few posts. What ARE we getting done with all of this busy-ness? Are we really putting love first, up front AND LAST where it belongs, where Whitman put it, where, on a good day or a good night, I put it.

Love does not conquer all. In fact, it doesn't conquer much at all. It's too fine, too delicate an art to have much to do with conquering. But it is something that so many long for, as we are so reminded the week of Valentine's, of love and loss and what might have been. And what is. You make it what it is.

It occurred to me today that we sure do need more Whitman in our nature, in our national character, more true, red-blooded passion for the Union, for the greater good, for the ideals of our origins as a nation. And yet, in career, in demeanor, modesty, quietude along with the beatitude. And Americans' attitude? Toward love? After the craziness and some swooning, just another job, close the deal. Neanderthals with credit cards and dinner reservations. Americans can make $100 dozen red roses come off like dyed red carnations. Better get back in the swing of things down deep where the blood flows, from the heart.


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