Whenever I think of Whitman — the king of American poetry, the self-publisher, the war-time nurse, and the singer of songs of himself — I think of an English professor I had as a freshman at a Quaker school in North Carolina. He gave assignments that felt like riddles to my seventeen-year-old mind, things about Buddhists climbing mountains and writing by looking at trees. One day, in his dim office, while he sat in front of a large tattered American flag, he started telling me about the importance of Whitman. He talked about Leaves of Grass, and put so much importance on which version of the book I should read that I thought the actual title was Leaves of Grass Eighteen Fifty-Five. I was struggling in his class, and he gave me a copy of the book because he thought it would help.
I continued to struggle in that class, and was only saved by the school’s policy of having students grade themselves. I only lasted one semester there. I heard later that the professor was arrested for having gone across the street and chucked corn dogs from the corner gas station at passing cars. I still count that semester as one of the great lost opportunities of my life — I could have learned a lot from that guy.
Another eccentric who I think about when I think about Whitman is one of the other giants of American poetry — Whitman’s inheritor Allen Ginsberg. He idolized Whitman and celebrated his use of the long line, which he described as an analog to human breath, a way of writing that Ginsberg himself adopted, and which Bob Dylan also came to use in songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Ginsberg dedicated his National Book Award-winning The Fall of America to Whitman. But before that, in his first book, Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg wrote “A Supermarket in California,” a story about wandering into a grocery store in Berkeley, California and finding Whitman cruising the aisles, hitting on the grocery boys, and guiding Ginsberg out into the night.
Ginsberg calls Whitman his “lonely old courage-teacher,” which could have to do with him learning how to embrace his own homosexuality, or how to celebrate himself and his poetry despite bouts of self-doubt and mental illness. To celebrate Whitman and Ginsberg, whose birthdays lock arms a mere three days away from each other, think of your own courage-teachers or missed opportunities, or use a trip to the grocery store to have a mystical experience. And hey, while you’re there, pick me up some corn dogs.