When Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he unleashed upon a disinterested public a powerful statement of "I Am." But Whitman's "I Am" was far from the deduction that philosopher Rene Descartes made centuries earlier when he prefaced it with "I think, therefore..." For Whitman, the "I am" was synonymous with "I feel."
He knew that to be the poet of the people, you had to first experience life deeply within yourself. Only then was empathy possible. In the American Experience presentation of "Walt Whitman," writer and director Mark Zwonitzer spends as much time, if not more, focusing the camera on the faces of the everyman, poetically morphing time between Whitman's day and our day, than he does on the few existing images of Whitman himself. It's a unique approach to telling Whitman's story -- perhaps the only way to tell it -- and it works, never more beautifully then as a backdrop for actor Chris Cooper's voicing of the poet's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried; Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd.
Experiencing and feeling were Whitman's only way of taking in the world. The film reminds us that Whitman did not initially find slavery morally abhorrent until he spent three months in New Orleans and witnessed a slave auction for himself. Whitman knew, as scholar Ed Folsom and poet Yusef Komunyakaa eloquently inform us, that the slave on the auction block "could be me." And when Whitman travels to Virginia to find his brother at the front lines during the Civil War, administering to the sick and dying becomes his calling. It's by holding the hands of these dying soldiers that he truly understands their pain and can try to comfort them, a pain and comfort that makes the poetry collection "Drum-Taps" so emotionally gripping. Again, Zwonitzer, and his masterful director of photography Michael Chin, morph time and images. Pictures of the civil war wounded, limbs blown off, huge gaps in the flesh of their bodies, are mixed with photos of soldiers today, presumably veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in similar states. Whitman's words were written both for the present and the future -- now our present -- it seems. Still, he remained an eternal optimist. "I had the luck yesterday, however, to do lots of good," he wrote in "Last of the War Cases" and recited here by Cooper.
The American Experience presentation is poetry in and of itself, beautifully shot, with a dash of eroticism (more morphing, this time with gender). Poets Martin Espada and Billy Collins give it gravitas. Joel Goodman's musical score gives it a sense of urgency. I'm left wondering, however, if we know Whitman any better, or ever can. What can you make of someone who believed, even at the mature age of 35, that his poetry could heal a nation and prevent a civil war? Words? Can words do that?
On the same day I watched an advance copy of "Walt Whitman," I also picked up a copy of Jeff Gordinier's new book, "X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Things from Sucking." It occurred to me that for many Xers, like myself, one of the most enduring references to Walt Whitman, and maybe our introduction to his work, may be that of "Uncle Walt" as Robin Williams' character John Keating refers to the poet in 1989's "Dead Poet's Society." I'm not sure the film gets its due credit as a touchstone for my generation, but perhaps it should. Who doesn't remember, Xers and non-Xers, the students standing on their desks at the end of the film addressing Keating as "O Captain, My captain" in honor of Keating's teaching of the Whitman poem of the same name? The romantic optimism of the students, seemingly crushed, turns out to be a good metaphor for the generation (though not completely, according to Gordinier ... I guess we'll see).
Whitman, too, was a romantic optimist, but with his feet on the ground. Perhaps that's what we take away from this film. Whitman didn't want to intellectualize, or philosophize. He wanted to get in the middle of things, to go "with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters" and "stand between the masters and the slaves entering into both so that both will understand me alike," because he knew he could be both or either at the same time. Did Generation X have a lock on empathy? Certainly not. But did we think we just might make a real, honest difference? I have no doubt. Whitman thought he could make a difference, too. And he did, though not necessarily with his poetry at the time he wrote it and not on the grand scale he would have liked. Had he self-published Leaves of Grass in 1990, he would have been the indie darling of the decade. But would it have made a real difference? We can't know. What we can assume is that he knew us, understood us, and cared about us.