What Would Walt Whitman Say?
by Michael Kearns
Visiting my hometown of St. Louis, the weather is downright manic-depressive, fluctuating from bitter cold to lapses of joyous sunshine. Perhaps these contradictory conditions speak to the extremes of my state of mind; wholeheartedly thankful to be spending time with my high school bestie, reinforcing our 55-year old friendship and yet forced to face the stinging realities of growing older, losing control, and looking at death. He has undergone a tumultuous surgery from which he is recovering valiantly.
I was given a bumper sticker that poses the question, “What would Walt Whitman say?” Uncle Walt: the beloved American who revolutionized poetry with an all-encompassing grasp of democracy, a fecund understanding of nature and a sensual map of bisexuality. Not to mention his prescient embrace of a non-binary stance. To suggest Whitman was ahead of his time does not suffice; he defined his generation 150+ years ago as well as our generation today.
Given many names in his lifetime (including “sodomite”), Uncle Walt was a champion of brotherhood, taking his self-assigned role as nursemaid to the war-wounded onto the battlefield. What would he say about my sojourn to St. Louis to be with my friend during his health crisis?
What would Walt say about a gathering of accomplished actors who made love to his words, ideas, beliefs, dreams, philosophies, giving voice with heart and soul? How could we dive into the Whitman canon without absorbing his profound humility, his fluid grace, his open sexuality? We were an army of emotion, under the guidance of the spectacular director and creator of Bring The Old Pageants, Uncle Walt Explains It All, Darrell Larson.
We did one-night-only at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre with the likelihood that Whitmanites will reprise the work shortly. That’s how desperately the audience needed to experience Uncle Walt’s largess in-the-moment.
Let’s provide context. The videotape recording of Tyree Nichols’ murder in cold blood, perpetrated by five cops, had been released to the horror of a seriously imperiled America the week before we honored America’s poet. What would Walt Whiman say? Before he spoke or printed his sentiments, I believe Uncle Walt would cry; shed tears for decades upon decades of outrageous racial strife that has corrupted America and persecuted our Black citizens. (Tyree and the police force who killed him were Black.)
Boy, do we need Whitman now.
I concluded 2022 with a workshop performance of a new solo piece that I’m writing, and Ryland Shelton is directing – a musical that plays with gender through a pastiche of familiar songs that have punctuated my life as a gay man, beginning over fifty years ago and traversing to the present. What would Walt Whitman say? He’d be proud of me for revealing a complicated aspect of self. Remember he wrote Leaves Of Grass, a book containing explicit poems that reverberated with love and respect for human bodies – men’s, women’s, his own.
And, finally, what would Walt say about websites and social media and self-promotion? Keep in mind that he published his initial stabs at poetry when he was sixteen and then worked as a printer and typesetter, eventually founding his own newspaper. He knew how to get the word-his words-into the public sphere.
So I am very excited to share my new website with you; it focuses on my most prominent professions: writer and writing teacher. Big thanks to web designer Connie Nassios and artist Theresa Kennedy for their tireless dedication to (hopefully) making the site both practical and entertaining. Enjoy.
For a critical analysis of Walt Whitman’s racist personal politics as contrast to his literary persona, please see this 2022 article by FE Lorraine Reyes.