Whitman and Me

Mark Kerstetter, Myself

I do not press my fingers across my mouth
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself #24


In this reading of section 24 of Whitman’s Song of Myself, I found the lines: Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! awkward to read. I found myself, in the very reading of them, in an effort to unscrew the words from my mouth. It’s not that I don’t understand the historical context, and deeply admire it, but that I feel personally inadequate to read them. In my own defense, I like doors. You have to understand, I have spent countless hours combing through piles of splintered heart pine, cypress and cedar, salvaging what I could. I have removed condemned doors from their jambs, lugged them from van to garage, out and back again. I have lovingly stripped the years of paint and crud from them, secured their faulty joints, replaced their termite eaten holes with matching wood, resurfaced them and rehung them. I love these doors. I love opening and shutting them. When I have to, I lock them. In this world you’d be a fool not to.

Whitman, I feel, was at the beginning of something. During the Civil War it was not at all certain that the Union would survive, and the “American experiment” was more than a metaphor or a political catchphrase. It was very much in the works. We live in a different America today: grown up big, in fact a behemoth. We’re not at the beginning of building a grand vision. Instead, we are forced to consider the thing we have become. Parts of it are overgrown like a cancer, while other parts are neglected, crumbling, termite eaten. Just as Whitman chose to care for the wounded rather than take up arms, I choose to salvage and rebuild rather than beat the American Drum in the world. The world, it seems to me, might be just a little bit sick of hearing it. And I wince every time one of our candidates uses that phrase: “greatest country in the world.” Do I apologize for America? Yes. I’m sorry world, we’ll try and do better.

So this whole aspect of Whitman is wrong for our time. This is a time to take stock of what’s rotten and fix it. Not a time for an expansion, but to focus on the details of salvaging what should never have been trashed in the first place and rebuilding. And living up to the original promise of including everyone in the process.

As a boy of 16 or 17 I read and instantly fell in love with the Whitman of Leaves and Song of Myself. I felt he was addressing me directly:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
– #2

I loved the idea of that universal “I” and that I was a part of it. Immediately I wanted to emulate Whitman’s stance toward the world: all senses open, receiving it all. And then, when I was ready to respond, when I had to respond, to do it with as much conviction as I could, despite all of the people telling me in many different ways to shut up. And then, in section #21, when he said,

I translate [the pains of hell] into a new tongue

this became a recipe for the artist’s work. My whole life has been a salvaging effort. But I can’t do it the way Whitman did it. It’s a different America today, one in which the experimental character has been forgotten, while we have achieved a certain status that every one of us must take stock of. And yet it’s an America in which certain promises have not been fulfilled – not that load of refuse they call the “American Dream”, but the promise to allow everyone an equal footing, with a government of, by and for the people. With Whitman I stand with the mystery that is us. We are written and not yet written.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
– #20

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7 Responses to Whitman and Me

  1. hedgewitch says:

    I just hope we (as a country/culture) are not destined to be re-written, even unwritten, back to failure. Your last quote is so true–as soon as we open our eyes to look it all starts to pour in–deciphering it takes a lifetime, but like restoring a wreck of a house, it’s do-able if you concentrate on and learn how to place each project one at a time. Patience (as opposed to endurance) seems the hardest thing to learn in life, for me anyway.

  2. Scott says:

    I like that you like doors. I do too. Salvaging them is cool. I enjoyed the description too. It’s almost therapeutic. Removing crud. Scraping. Repurposing. New life. Old wood. Cypress must be interesting to work with.
    Since Susan’s post on Whitman, I’ve been thinking about some one who would take the time to get down and see that grass actually has leaves.

  3. I think this nails it here and I wish more artists and writers would wake up to this.

    “But I can’t do it the way Whitman did it. It’s a different America today…”

    We are in the social media and digital dark ages in some ways….standards are average and we are our own fans…

    Thanks for this sharing. I enjoyed it.

    ~a.q.s.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    What a pleasure to “come up for air” and spot this post! Among the many things you do so deftly is to weave your personal connection to Whitman with your (always intelligent) perspective on things as they are now and things as they were in America. As I always do, I loved listening to your reading of the selection you chose from Song of Myself, as well as the expression of your self in art. Your ruminations on salvaging were particularly resonant (I loved Scott’s comment in response, as well). Thinking of salvaging put me in mind of something Claudio Magris (Danube) said about history: “A journey is always a rescue operation, the documentation and harvesting of something that is becoming extinct and will soon disappear, the last landing on an island that is sinking beneath the waves.” Let us hope we’re not on the “last landing.” We need all to do as you do, to salvage, to restore; and to be, as Scott says: “someone who would take the time to get down and see that grass actually has leaves.”

  5. So enjoyed this, Mark…both the art and the article.

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