A few nights ago I set out on a walk after a long dinner. I had been ill for many days, unable to move, and I was like a caged animal set free. As I walked I could feel my calf muscles unlock, my lungs fill, my heart race. How quickly the body weakens, breaks down; how quickly, if we are lucky, health returns us to ourselves.
It was near midnight, and with the confidence of the clueless I thought to head uptown but wandered instead into the meat-packing district. It was teeming with beautiful young people. There was a sheen coating the street cobbles; it had been drizzling, the moist air sparkled, haloed the street lamps, slicked the metal railings and dampened the concrete sidewalks.
Unexpectedly, I began to think about Walt Whitman. The 120th anniversary of his death is on March 26th. With apologies to every teacher who tried to make me love him, I must confess: I have never in my life enjoyed reading Whitman. In fact, I loathed him. I nattered my way through school lessons of Song of Myself or The Leaves of Grass. I found Whitman tiresomely repetitive, overwhelming, indulgent and arrogant. Perhaps his manic energy frightened me.
But as I walked along Gansevoort, something tugged at my memory. I watched, for a few minutes, those brash young Masters of the Universe, the investment bankers setting out to dine at midnight, or carouse in the bars, spilling into the street, slim-hipped women tottering on high heels, handsome men in dark suits leaning on lamp posts, silk ties askew, drinks in hand.
"Youth, large, lusty, loving--youth full of grace, force, fascination,
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?"
I found myself on Ninth or Tenth Avenue, I can't now remember which, as I was not paying much attention to where I was. I felt safe. And sound. I was engaged in the pure joy of striding through a world I rarely see, a city at work and play in the middle of the night. A pencil-lined sliver of new moon smiled over my shoulder; keeping the High Line to my left, I continued walking, my stride by now strong and sure.
I took in the tableau of midnight Manhattan, while around me many lay dreaming in their beds. The harsh light, the damp sheen, the looming buildings, the people rushing, crowded, so many, awake, at such an hour; steam evaporated from craters in the street--my mind a camera--and as I walked, some new awareness dawned.
"The female that loves unrequited sleeps,
And the male that loves unrequited sleeps,
The head of the money-maker that plotted all day sleeps,
And the enraged and treacherous dispositions, all, all sleep."
Eventually I made my way to the area around Port Authority, teeming with people. Some were huddled around a food truck, their belongings bundled high on metal carts. Some, hard-hatted, were climbing up and down ladders into vast holes in the ground, toiling under the streets. Steam enveloped them and billowed out of striped stacks into the bright night air. Swaths of the avenue were cordoned off for repair; the lights were strong and low, so that everyone was weirdly backlit--brilliantly outlined human figures, gesticulating, their faces dark.
Above me loomed those grand old warehouses that were once filled with the treasures of the country--of the world--the freight of the trains that steamed into the yards carrying goods to be stored. The rooflines of the old brick warehouses were picked out with handsome crenellation, their windows were large as doors; these were once buildings that mattered.
And there was the massive temple of the Post Office building on its zigaraut of stairs, becoming a tomb for the dying expression of an enterprise we now call connectivity. I turned into Times Square, dazzled momentarily by the encrustation of neon, and I suddenly felt depleted and overwhelmed.
When I got home, I pulled down from the shelf a dusty old volume of Whitman’s poems. It was all there, the entire night’s walk. I read for hours, mesmerized. And I suddenly saw that I had been blind. Whitman is the only poet I have ever read whose embrace would contain a city, a wilderness, an ocean, a continent, a globe. His was a creative arrogance. He felt such hunger, and showed such enterprise.
And such fierce, fearless love.
"O the joy of my spirit--it is uncaged--it darts like lightening!
It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time."
I began to realize that something wondrous had just happened; I had wandered into a mental clearing, wandered into a spiritual opening, wandered, in the course of that midnight journey, into some new capacity for seeing and feeling and understanding an unfamiliar language, hearing a great poet's voice. I felt absorbed into Whitman's hymn--his hymn to all of life. His is our ancient Homeric voice.
"Come said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the universal.
In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed perfection."
It is all so...heroic. A word that rarely rings true, these days, but this time it struck me full force. And it struck me how necessary it is to sing of the heroic; it is soul killing not to be able to do so. Can we still think, with Whitman, that “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem”? We have built ourselves up on grand dreams and noble, greedy ambition. To think that people--puny, weak, short-lived people--could create something on such a heroic scale as a city. Long ago, the Chicago fathers decided to reverse the direction of a river’s flow--and may soon do so again. We have such astonishing power. The mark we make on this world is as sure and gorgeous as the majestic frozen desolate beauty of Yellowstone--when it is not despicable.
"Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky...
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same."
It has not happened very often, in my lifetime, that a beam of light shines down and opens a path that has led into the arms of…a poet. Somehow, as I walked the midnight streets of “superb-faced Manhattan”, I heard the call of Whitman’s hymn for the first time in my life, and succumbed.
"The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged."
I am, indeed, rightly charged.