Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Poem from Walt

There is a boy I once loved (and love still) named Joe. For a while, in the late '90s, wandering Philadelphia was our thing. Joe is one of those friends of my youth in whose energetic company the world suddenly becomes larger, more beautiful, and more alive with possibility. So I wasn't too surprised when, on a July 4th in downtown Philly, we bumped into Walt Whitman.

Walt wasn’t dressed with the weather. The band of his hat was dark with sweat. He read aloud hand-scrawled versions of his own poems, which Joe and I lingered to hear. This seemed to please Walt quite a bit, and he asked if we had any requests.

“Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd?” I said.

Walt rifled eagerly through his notebook, and then gave me a crestfallen look. Apparently, he hadn’t written that one yet.

“That’s really okay.” (I felt awful to have upset Walt.) “Just read me one of your favorites.”

Walt nodded, and dug into his knapsack. Out came The Norton Anthology of American Poetry. Walt flipped to the index. Then he flashed a smile so broad it rippled his great beard.

“Out of the Rolling Ocean, The Crowd,” he began….

Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd, came a drop gently to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travel’d a long way, merely to look on you, to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look’d on you,
For I fear’d I might afterward lose you.

(Now we have met, we have look’d, we are safe;
Return in peace to the ocean, my love;
I too am part of that ocean, my love—we are not so much separated;
Behold the great rondure—the cohesion of all, how perfect!
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us,
As for an hour, carrying us diverse—yet cannot carry us diverse for ever;
Be not impatient—a little space—Know you, I salute the air, the ocean and the land,
Every day, at sundown, for your dear sake, my love.)

By poem's end, Walt's face was wet with tears. He hobbled forward and wrapped me in an emotional (and slightly pungent) bear hug. Then he grabbed Joe and hugged him, too. All of us teary now, Joe and I thanked Walt and said goodbye. We drifted to the waterfront, toward the stirrings of live music.


At 7:57 PM, Blogger zipzap said...

Lovely post. I love Walt, too. While in Philadelphia for this past year's MLA convention I made a pilgrimage (across the river) to his house in Camden, NJ. No one was home. I sat on his steps, anyway.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger What Now? said...

Beautiful--what a delightful post. Makes me think of Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California"--the joy of roaming with Walt Whitman!

At 2:26 PM, Blogger YelloCello said...

I love Walt, too. (The encounter in Philly just sealed it.) I really need to visit his house someday. I've not done that yet... although I have many hundreds of times been back and forth on the Walt Whitman bridge!

What Now -- I didn't know about the poem "Supermarket in California." Just looked that up and enjoyed reading it.

I recommend a short story by Chris Andrian: "Every Night for a Thousand Years." It's an imaginative account of Whitman's volunteering in a Civil War hospital in Washington D.C.


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