As an artist I am, like most other artists, asked about major influences on my work.
Last night, as I was watching a wonderful biopic on PBS, I realized what a profound influence that literature has had on my work. More specifically poetry. Even more specifically the works of Walt Whitman.
I was raised in a family with a love of literature of all sorts. My mother read me the works of Emerson, Scott, Longfellow, Frost and manymany others as a very young child. It got to where I could recite many before I was even out of kindergarten. Of course this was no doubt due to the fact that my mother herself had many works memorized and would recite them to entertain us as she baked or did some other household task. I always liked the rather macabre ones like Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” and Sir Walter Scott’s take on Goethes “Erl- King”. Yeah, ok, I was a weird kid.
As I got older I discovered Blake, Neruda, TS Eliot, and Rilke, who are some of my favorite poets still. I would suggest that anyone who wants to go into the Arts of any stripe read Rilkes’ “Letters to a Young Poet”.
Walt Whitman’s body of work has, however, impacted me more than that of any other writer, poetry or prose.
I discovered Whitman at around age 12 , when I fancied myself a fledgling writer of sorts. I have since read and reread “Leaves of Grass” over the course of my entire adult life.
I recently passed on my grubby, tattered, dogeared copy to my daughter who writes.
Whitman’s pure physicality transcends time and cultural boundaries. It transcends the restrictions of the society in which it was created. It trumpets a strength in the most fundamental act of simply being as well as a deep love for and unflinching examination of existence . What courageous writing.
When I’m feeling unsure of my work or weirded out by my own weirdness all I have to do is pick up “Leaves of Grass” and open it to a random poem.
I read and am renewed, recharged and reassured.
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. ”
“Song of Myself”
Thanks Uncle Walt. And Thanks Mom.