Jul 17, 2010

Whitman functions

It is easy when reading Walt Whitman, the Good Gray Poet, the crazy old man with a beard, to begin and end with the barbaric yawp. A significant part of what attracts students and scholars to Whitman’s work in the first place is this exuberance, the feeling of freedom, the reassurance of joy, the vibrancy of his verse that seems to burst forth, even unbidden, in a great, liberating gush.

This is the aspect of Whitman that really moves people, and really sells. It can be marketed to a mass audience, as was seen in 2009 when the scratchy recording of the poet reading “America,” played over scenes of indomitable, bare-shouldered youth and a climax of fireworks, was used to sell Levi’s blue jeans. It was also this life-loving, worry-free Whitman who appeared as an apparition in Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.”

In the advertisement, Whitman serves as a voice of reassurance in anxious times, and in the poem, Whitman works as a contrast to Ginsberg’s own nervousness and dread. It’s Whitman’s joie de vivre that makes him into this figure we want to follow. He’s the funny old grandfather who, acting as liberated as a child, sets us free. He eats artichokes without paying, in Ginsberg’s poem, and doesn’t know or care that the doors are going to close in an hour. Hungry and having nothing in the neon store, Ginsberg dreams of Whitman's enumerations -- "What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!" -- and pleadingly asks, “Which way does your beard point tonight?”

It’s an anxious question which the scratchy voice on the Levi’s ad might rightly be understood to be answering with its assurance that America is “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, / All, all alike endear’d,” and “Perennial with the Earth.”

Whitman functions as an invitation to overcome anxiety and to come and yawp barbaric.