The Casualties of Walt Whitman

Article excerpt

In a journal I kept the summer before moving to New York in 1990 to study creative writing at NYU, I find an odd entry about Walt Whitman. I had been reading D. H. Lawrence's essay "Whitman," published in 1923, and I agreed with his statement that "Something is overdone in Whitman; there is something that is too much." "I finally found someone," I wrote, "who speaks sensibly about Whitman's exaggerated mass of deafening declarations!" I was then under the spell of Rilke and Yeats (so much so that in the list of qualities on the facing page that I found essential for a long-term relationship with a man, I find "European" at the top). Whitman hurt my ears-he sounded arrogant, brash, positively overwhelming in the length of his poems, in his long lists, his parallel structures, his biblical rhythms. I felt trapped by Whitman: once he hooked his voice in my head, I had a difficult time extricating it. Though this would soon change, especially after I met Galway Kinnell, who cites Whitman as his "principal master," before I arrived at the writing workshop, I wanted to shrug off Whitman's kisses and his forever-reaching arms, his beard, his boots, his surging afflatus, that open-collared shirt, and, oddly enough, his manly muscle.

Of course I could not escape him. After all, 1992 would be the centenary of his death, and I strongly felt his presence, not only in relation to Galway but also through Sharon Olds, whose exquisite, minutely rendered, "apparently personal" poems echoed Whitman's wish to include sexuality and the body as valid subjects for our art. I felt Whitman in off-campus environs as well, especially those all-male hang-outs that I found (with the help of the short-lived Outweek magazine and the soon-to-be-defunct New York Native) in the Lower East Side and the Bowery. Reading him for American literature classes, I slowly began to change my attitude toward Whitman. But before he would start to influence my own poems, I would first have to become embroiled in a violent argument in an East Village gay bar, as I almost became a casualty, in the hands of a brawny young hunk who appeared to spend much time beneath a bench press, one balmy spring night in Mannahatta, over the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The Tunnel Bar was a cramped affair-a dark, hot, male-smelling place located on 1st Avenue and 7th Street, next to a locksmith, two doors down from a Polish diner. It had the usual East Village amenities: a two-person toilet that doubled as a back room, a much-in-demand pool table, a pinball machine in a nook this side of the toilet where someone always seemed to be smoking a joint. Two or three guys usually sat or lay on the beat-up couch no one knew the color of and where I would one day meet my first Buddhist boyfriend. Brazen, cute men sauntered and caroused and never seemed to stop celebrating themselves in the back room while others leaned and loafed at their ease, observing the many pumped-up and pierced East Villagers, empty bottles of Bud at their elbows. Industrial rock shook the place all night long, and weekends didn't get going until two or three a.m., long after the early bedtime I needed to continue writing new poems by day.

This was the time when gay men debated the benefits of AZT, delivered Meals On Wheels, were friends in deed who dutifully accompanied our lovers to yet another doctor's appointment. We taught poetry workshops at Gay Men's Health Crisis, and to remain sane, we signed up for seminars, such as the one I'd been to that day, "Sex, Dating and Intimacy in the Age of AIDS." Afterwards I either craved a gin and tonic or wanted to try out my new conversational skills, so I went to the Tunnel.

And there was Jim: a tall, bearded blonde whose well-defined arms and solid chest immediately caught my attention. A grin kept crossing his face when our eyes met, and he soon detached himself from the wall and sauntered toward me. Yes, he did grin a lot; yes, he did like Joy Division; yes, he did live in the city. …