I never thought much about Walt Whitman or poetry on the written page of any kind for that matter. Of course I’ve heard the famous bits and pieces over the years, they’re almost unavoidable, but I have to admit I’d never sat down and read an entire poem of Whitman’s until a couple Saturdays ago in the basement of a beautiful, art-filled home in Evanston, crowded in with about fifty others, all taking turns reading verses of “Song of Myself”.
Tony Adler, who assigns me plays to review at the Reader, invited me to the 33rd annual Whitmanstide, where as many guests as are willing take two or so hours to read Whitman’s famous poem in its entirety. As a rule, I tend to ignore party invitations. The reasons are many, tedious, pitiful, and not really worth going into. Suffice it to say that I don’t do well at social gatherings. But I wanted to go to this one because I wanted to put some faces to some names. It’s bizarre to work with people for a year or more and never spend time in the same room. It’s commonplace these days, of course, but I’ve never gotten used to it. So, unlike most parties, I could explain attending to myself with the argument that it was important to actually meet a few people I felt like I’d started to know.
Tony greeted me at the door as a total stranger until I told him my name. Then there was a smile of surprise and a handshake. Apparently, few Reader freelancers who get his invite actually bother to show up. But many, many other people did. Every room of the house was full of them. Talking, laughing, drinking, eating people. I squeezed my way to the bar and got a double whiskey.
Tal and his wife Tayler were the only ones I recognized among this throng. Tal’s my main conduit at the Reader. After working together a couple years we have a pretty good rapport. After saying hello to them I drifted around, looking at the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, soaking in the sound of dozens of conversations going at once. A guy named Hank asked me how I knew Tony, then asked if I’d seen Tracy Letts’ latest. I told him I had and also that Tony and I had had diametrically opposite reactions to it. It’s a play about a small-town city council which turns into Children of the Corn. (Tony loved the horror-movie twist; I did not.) Then Hank and I talked about Letts’ recent movie appearances. We both agreed he’s cornered the market on world-weary, put-upon-dad-with-mental-issues roles.
Then Tony announced that anyone who wanted to read should make their way to the basement. The long narrow room quickly filled, with late stragglers finding no place to sit, crowding the doorway. Tal and Taylor ended up sitting on the floor near me. Everyone who hadn’t brought their own copy of Leaves of Grass picked up a photocopy of “Song of Myself” from the coffee table and settled in. Tony read the first of its fifty-two sections, then we continued clockwise around the room. I instantly regretted leaving my sketchbook upstairs. I rarely get the chance to watch this many people sit together in a confined space for a protracted length of time like this. It was kind of like being in a train car, except that no one was allowed to get off and leave for two hours. A captive audience and I blew it.
I followed along as the stanzas crept closer and closer to me. Poetry hardly ever moves me sitting on the page, but hearing it read is another matter. When it’s good it floats through the air, in and around the reader and the listeners. I can’t say I caught every line or even most of the nuances, but throughout the two hours in that basement there were many, many beautiful moments. The fact that so many different voices took their turns definitely added to the experience. This poem, attempting as it states to contain multitudes, benefits by being recited by many rather than just one.
The poem struck me overall as incredibly American in its optimism, openness, and bluster. Its faith in the basic goodness of the world reminded me not for the first time that I’m not from this country. Were I ever to compose myself it would doubtless sound very different. Still, there was much that hooked me anyway.
It’s unavoidable to connect the past to the present, so the nervous laughter anytime Whitman mentioned politics or presidents was no surprise. If I’m thankful to Tony and to Walt Whitman for anything it is for lifting the ever-present malaise of the past year for a couple hours. A gathering like this is the polar opposite of the daily end-times horrorshow of life in 2017 America.
It all came creeping back into my head as I left that cheerful house. I see little to look forward to in the coming year but an invite back to Whitmanstide would be more than welcome. If the kleptocratic thugs running this country leave the path from my house to Evanston passable next December, I’ll be there.