The Howl of Virgil Whitman

Illustration by Mike Lee

Ah, dear father, graybeard,

Lonely old courage-teacher

Who bared his brains to Heaven,

What Lincoln did you drive

in the total animal soup of time?

So many were the chosen chiefs who sailed

in three-times-ten ships to the aid of Troy

and plowed the plains of Lime Barty.

 

O leisure! Class! Suit!

What can ever be more stately and admirable

than all your shameless unsquared nipples

popping up in everopening windows?

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

Do you give in that you are any less immortal?

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide,

and ebb with the ebb-tide!

You rows of houses! You window-pierc’d façades! You roofs!

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

 

O Rockland! my Rockland! our fearful trip is

stolen daily, overpriced and unknown,

yet putting down here what might be left to say

With the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered

out of our own bodies who threw

potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism

and subsequently presented themselves on the

granite steps of the madhouse.

Who is he who stands apart, one crowned

with olive boughs and bearing the durable

Samsonite gifts of Bob Eubanks,

chosen especially . . . for you?

“Aeneas, son of gods, are you awake?

Be up and ease the cords! Set free the sails!”

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open

our skulls and ate up our brains and imagination?

Along trails less happy than death, even, you too

have given to our coasts unending Leaves

not more shed from the trees, or trees from the

earth, than they are shed out of you.

So frolic on, dumb, beautiful ministers

of afterness unclosed and uncloseable. Relentless!

we sink our swords into a nice fresh monster

which falls slack with chills and, with a moan, flees

resentful, to hell

To the door of my Rockland cottage in the Western night.

Walt Whitman, self-published poet, Civil War army nurse, former editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New Orleans Crescent, quietly celebrates his 181st birthday on Wednesday, May 31. Since it was Whitman’s contention that planet Earth is a fairly nice place, that life here is remarkably worth living even though it doesn’t rhyme, that sex is particularly more enjoyable than administrative work, and that humanship is best practiced by humans, everyone’s invited. Whitman was a strange one: Rather than dashing, as bright white young men of his day so often did, into the roaring slaughterhouse of American business, he spent his life writing poetry and stories — half his life writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass — and has thus far spent his entire death in New Jersey.

By the time we’re done, many of us will have spent half our lives or more cutting and pasting pieces of the Internet. Is it possible that from such devotions some truly artful hypertext poetry might emerge? No, it’s not. A drag, granted, but it ain’t gonna happen. No sir. Not on this here Internet. (Go make your own Internet.) However, average citizens such as ourselves can at least have some fun. It’s springtime, the time when thousands of poem-generating algorithms spring up between the cracks in our screens — automated word-rearranging scripts with various and not-so-various themes and features and so on. Two of my favorites (this week): The Paranoid Poetry Generator spews indelicate fears in groups of three and invites you to contribute your own paranoid phrases to its evolving database, thus cementing your anonymous immortality in the certainty of a ridiculous future. And Everypoet.com’s Genuine Haiku Generator sports, at the viewer’s discretion, an automatically refreshing Javascript Haiku floater that’s quiet and polite and informative; once it’s open, there’s really no point in closing it at all.