Every Atom | No. 159

Milton Kessler (1930-2000)

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Milt and Paula Kessler, filmed in Los Angeles in 1992, the 100th anniversary of Whitman’s death.

[Whitman] knew best the companionship that would be necessary between Americans as they would go on from the high point of the mid-19th century to fulfill the destiny that was in the dream of the people during his time. So, embodied in himself the power, passion and genius—that grew from a simple American, from a person who wasn’t from Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or Yale, just growing up in Long Island, to a poor family, a family with… economic problems, with the inability to develop any kind of affluence, a family that really had all sort of difficulties. Out of this body, this American body, beautiful, out of these beautiful eyes, there burst, in the early 1850s, a genius, like Michelangelo, or Leonardo. 

He was in a sense our neighbor. It’s as if somebody down the street—somebody who worked on the newspaper, who you know to be sort of a talented person, an active person who did all sorts of things, was an enthusiastic, self-educated man—burst into a great world, a genius. And started writing work that made him an international genius, and the person who best manifested the qualities that Americans dream about when they dream about themselves at their best. Not faking about themselves, but dreaming about themselves in their passionate sense, dreaming about themselves meeting each other on the road, going to new places, being always astonished, and having a sense that there would never be any end to the astonishment.

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Milton Kessler grew up in the Bronx and taught for many years at Binghamton University, where he was a beloved professor and poet. His books included Sailing Too Far (Harper & Rowe, 1973) and Free Concert (Etruscan Press, 2002).


Cover art by Libby Schwers