Sunday, March 01, 2009

I am turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding

Yes, well, I dare anyone to say the above isn't true.

But that's not the reason I'm posting it here. It also happens to be a line from Walt Whitman's massive poem "Song of Myself." Despite the fact that I was an English major in college, have a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and currently teach literature at a university, I had never read Whitman's poem. This is a major oversight, one that I cannot even justify by my emphasis in Latin American literature -- for I knew that José Martí's "Our América" is a response in the tradition of Whitman. I cannot even justify this as an oversight on the film front. After all, upon coming back to the United States for college, several of my friends wrote to me back in Lima that I had to see this movie which was all about me; when I went to see it, I discovered that ol' W.W. lorded over the English classroom like a spectre, sounding his "barbaric yawp" like the "sweaty toothed madman" that he is.

In any case, the oversight has been corrected in a most wonderful way.

On Friday, my colleague Linda Voris hosted a one-time public reading of "Song of Myself." It was possible to say that she decided to do this "just becuase," but she explained at the outset that this whole endeavor was inspired on Obama's inauguration day and the fervor his election alone generated. Each participant selected one of the 52 sections of the poem.

My colleague Katherine (who, mind you, we only just discovered was also an English major at Dartmouth at the same time I was!) threw down the gauntlet when she announced her choice, lamenting that "I would love to do #24, but I think that one should be read by someone manly." Naturally, I took this as a challenge; naturally (and blindly, really), I chose that selection.

I would suggest trying to read it out loud for yourself to see if you get the same results. I only read it once to myself the night before while watching ER, and discovered I really could not read it any other way with with a low, gravelly voice. It was all about sensuality, the corporeal -- and it was really fun to read:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whateve I touch or am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles and all the creeds.

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,
Transluscent mould of me it shall be you!
Shaded ledges and rests it shall be you!
Firm masculine colter it shall be you!
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you!
You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Breat that presses against other breasts it shall be you!

I mean, really. You don't get better than this. No wonder why I am a Unitarian. I even got to do an encore when a couple people didn't show up and I got to pinch-hit with #42 as well. This particular section got a big laugh:

I know perfectly well my own egotism,
Know my omniverous lines and must not write any less,
And must fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

The entire reading was really a magical experience, one I haven't had with poetry for a long time. All the different voices -- men, women, all with different accents and inflections -- made for a really exciting evening, one that finished in three hours, which was much shorter than I imagined. I wonder if it is a common occurrence to read Whitman like this -- or whether any other poets merit such a reading. Certainly, I'm using a bookstore gift certificate that has been burning a hole in my jacket pocket to buy some Whitman before I lose all this feeling.

And as for my section? Let me put it this way: three students came up to me afterwards to tell me that they were going to have a hard time coming to my class again next week; a fourth said he now never plans to miss any of my classes again.

1 comment:

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