Walt Whitman

I teach American Literature so I have had my hand at teaching Walt Whitman for a good decade or more. I took a graduate class called “Whitman and Dickinson” in the late 90s. But, unlike my ongoing affair with Giles Deleuze, it wasn’t the academic jargon and the erudite theory that made me fall for W.W.; it was the gritty repetition of work-a-dayness that I discovered while still a lower-class grub in high school.

Strangely, this had nothing to do with my English Teacher, Mrs. C, one of the best teachers I’ve ever known (and who, along with an eighth grade teacher guy named Miles, may be the reason I became an English teacher myself), who was more for Shakespeare and Madrigals than she was for Howling beatnicks. It’s too bad. I could have used some advice about what happened Under the El[1] before finding out about that particular brand of up-close-and-way-too-personal by myself.[2] However, nothing coarse or profane ever worked its way into Mrs. C’s class. I mean, the randiest thing I remember from that grade is The Mayor of Casterbridge. (Mr. B the year before taught us that there was nothing in poetry except sex and death and childhood memories. Only he said it like it was a bad thing.) It was Miss Louise, my drama teacher and the choral director, who chose the musical Working, the songs of which are all based on Whitman’s poetry, when I was a Sophomore in the mid-Reagan years. It was at the point when I too heard America singing and fell hard for the hairy, horny, horn blower.

The mason, the waitress, the farm worker, the fireman, the factory worker, all had a beautiful place in a poetic flow of a nation’s infrastructure.

And I was not a product of the academy; I was the child of a factory worker and a truck driver, granddaughter to sharecroppers all around.

So, you see, it’s no surprise that despite my deep and abiding love for My Captain, I was never able to convey such adoration to a set of undergraduates who longed less for urban poetry and more for the imminent end of the semester.

After I left high school, I went to work at a factory too. The bend-lift-straighten-flip-turn-dump-bend-lift repetition of my days and nights and overtime-weekends would send me into reveries of singing my body electric as I watched products, from which I was ultimately estranged as Marx called it (little did I know at the time that there was a word for what I was feeling-like-a-cogg-in-the-machinery), roll up the undulating conveyor belt like pink salmon driving to their spawny-death.

Death and sex and childhood memories.

But now, PhD’d, clean and respectable, only occasionally getting tipsy and committing candor that horrifies my peers, I don’t read Whitman for the joy he brought me—I teach him for the core curriculum. You see, I was told not to let my students see that I am “human”—and though I usually chuck that advice where it belongs, every once-in-a-while I think, “They don’t need to know that side of me.” And in this case, it’s true. They don’t need to know what happened to me on Ashland, on Kedvale, on Morgan, in Burbank, in Brighton Park, or at that fancy South Shore penthouse. Aw, hell, nobody needs to know that shite.

So—I suck at teaching Whitman.

Until this year.

This pretty little thing wandered her way into my life and scared the feck out of me. I didn’t see myself if her, if that’s what you are thinking. She just loved Whitman. For his grunge—not in spite of it. We stayed up all night talking through a common-mess we’d both been marinated in, and we might have had a spot too much to drink. The next day, I did not have a clue about what I was going to do in class. I’d make a quick PowerPoint, I guessed, and force-feed Leaves to begrudging, entitled George Strait fans. Then I thought—how would I teach this to Hazey? I imagined a sympathetic audience instead of a hostile one.

I made a Power-Point, yes. But I set it to run a series of 19th century faces and bodies—mostly bodies, some human, some not: white men, white women, poor folk, old folk, slaves on the auction block, prostitutes, pigs in the streets of Manhattan, the Golden Gate and the water below. Then, I did the unthinkable. I didn’t lecture.

I read:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

And then I’d tell a little bit about Whitman’s life—kinda like I was talking about my granddad. How he thought abolitionists were full of shite and hot-stink while he lived in New England but then he moved to NOLA and saw what he saw and knew what he knew. All while these images of bodies flashed behind me. And through urge and urge and urge, I think they heard me. The way I meant for them to hear me. The way W.W. meant for them to hear him. I’m sure of it because one young man, the one who had said horrid things about Bradstreet, sat in the back with his eyes welled-up and the edge of his desk in a white-knuckled grip.

At that moment I thought—this is sort of like magic.

OK—not magic—but teaching magic.

I have taught students from a purely theoretical standpoint where I’ve totally thrown my back into the teaching before—and they got it. They didn’t loooove it, but they got it. When I didn’t throw my back into it, they seemed to love it much more. And Whitman is very Pagan-friendly in his god-imbued-nature-and-humanity-is-cool-especially-when-united-in-its-stinky-and/or-naked-ness anyway. So, next semester when I have a new set of preps in ground classes (well, one brand-new—one I haven’t done in a few semesters) and two brand-spanking new preps Online, I think I’ll take the less aggressive route and let the material do the work for me.

I mention all this because it’s (conveniently) a make-up post for my W week and I am starting a new set of classes this upcoming week and I’m a little twitterpated, as usual. I have a full-to-capacity Seekers class (and running-over—I may have to tell two students that they had to wait for the next session, I hate that feeling!!) and a comfortably full Neophyte class and straggling students at other levels. My concerns run from “Where is everybody going to sit?” to “Will I get back in time from belly-dancing to change before teaching X, Y, or Z?”

Maybe I’ll just flash naked bodies on a screen and call it a day.

This post is part of a year-long project. Rowan Pendragon’s The Pagan Blog Project; “a way to spend a full year dedicating time each week very specifically to studying, reflecting, and sharing . . . .    The project consists of a single blog post each week posted on prompt that will focus on a letter of the alphabet” (http://paganblogproject/).


[1] A line from Howl.

I wrote a poem called “Under the El” in 1990 while organizing and performing in local “Slams”—remember those?—making a prolonged metaphorical connection between the poet and the rapist: “I use my tongue / to invade your space . . . my verse / [fills your mouth] / with the bitterness / and you can’t breathe / gasping / gulping / your chest won’t expand / and yeah . . . you really don’t / want me / to / stop.” I look back at the absolute violence of the entire poem (bits of which I will not publish here) and I wonder how the feck, given the first-hand nature of it all, I got out of the 80s alive.

I also wrote a poem about heroine—called it “screaming Hyacinths”—and proclaimed myself, “a fabulous junkie.” At that point in my life, I felt that “Scraping the bottom / with my mirror and razor / was better than floating in cinder-block / office wall mediocrity.”

[2] I mean, I was with my sister when she was mugged when I was only three-years-old, saw my first DB while in second grade, and was never really a stranger to sexual cruelty—but this shit is different, y’all.

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7 comments on “Walt Whitman

  1. Whitman had found what the Beats were looking for. & I thought it was funny how Pound wrote a poem to Whitman including, “I come to you as a grown child/ who has had a pig-headed father …” because, as crafty as Pound was, and with such a great eye, I don’t think he ever did see the Center; and I surely as old bones know Whitman never spent as much time with dusty books as did Ez. Po.

  2. odeliaivy says:

    Sweet teaching sweetness! Hells yeah. I can groove to this. Sounds like you hit it the right way. I’m happy for you and hope the high of it gets your through what sounds like a shit ton of work with new classes and new preps.

    I teach three sections of same subject but in HS and we get nowhere near anything resembling depth before I have to reprimand someone for throwing things. I love poetry, but I loathe teaching it to this age group.

    I think the letting go can work wonders though. If there is enough of a knowledge and experience base, then magic can happen even if out of bounds or by seat pant flying.

  3. BW, I think this is my favorite post from you so far. Maybe I just connected with this experience from my own love of literature (although I have to ashamedly admit I’ve always appreciated WW but didn’t know he was cool). Thank you for writing this!

  4. Ahh you wrote slam poetry and you put it in your post about W.W. ~now that’s how you steal a girls heart! ❤

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