People say that Whitman is the poet of democracy, of the body, of the soul, of mysticism. He is all these things—poet of the body electric, lover of men, of the female body and the male body, the enslaved person, the stevedore and sailor, the ferry-boat pilot, the boatmen and clam diggers, the hymn-singers and the contralto in the organ loft. Of the lonely woman gazing upon twenty-eight bathers who are stripped and diving, like those of Thomas Eakins’ “Swimming Hole” painting or a nude motion-study photograph by Eadweard Muybridge. He is the poet of the young men with a look in their eye—like the one Peter Doyle and he give to each other in the famous studio portrait of them together, or that Warry Fritzinger gives to John Johnston as Johnston snaps a photo of him standing behind Whitman’s wheelchair at the Camden docks.
He is the lover of what is human about us, of us with our foibles, our lusts, our disappointments, our heroism in the midst of everyday life. Of the men embracing when saying good-bye, of the lover he meets on the beach, whose head rests on his breast in the starlight. Oh, assuredly he is the poet of Nature. Of the thrush and the mockingbird, the lilac, the blade of grass. Of the great compost which is all of us, now and across time.
I live in Washington, D.C., and am a long-time lover of Manhattan. I walk in streets where he walked, I smell the atmosphere of Broadway and beach. The seagull swirls above me as it once did for him. He found healing in the nearby woods. In the stream in New Jersey. On the Long Island shore. There awakening again and again to the senses–eating, breathing, smelling, an organism among organisms, atoms merging with countless other atoms–part of woods, waves, the straw in the barn. They called to him, they call to us–the veins in a leaf, the tide of the sea, endlessly rocking. Translating us in open air. Quivering us to new identities.