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Monday, June 3, 2013

Losing Passing Strangers and Imaginary Lovers

by: Walt Whitman (1819-1892) From Leaves of Grass (1900)

ASSING stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only, 
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.
We all have people with whom we build instantaneous trust and with whom we feel incredible instant connections. Friendships that somehow surpass human understanding -- these relationships seem to be a part of our natural existence. We seldom question the unique quality of the congenial conjunctions, and if we do, we usually write off our feelings as two people having the same uncanny "common interests," or we just label our bonds with the cliche "two peas in a pod."

Do we live prior lives as souls who have known these special friends as absolute "fits" in an earlier time? Would this explain the extraordinary bonds we experience with our particular friends? I don't know, but I do feel a definite harmonic "soul mate" connection of amity with certain people I call friends.

And, perhaps more vexing, I have met others, who even on first meeting, seem to possess roots common with my own and an affinity that seems to reach far beyond the simple depths of casual acquaintance. Their eyes, their voice, their very spirit seems strangely comforting and familiar. Is it a love familiar or love desirous? Could it be both a the purposeful "fall" and a strange, inductive leap?

Take the instant connection idea a step further. Have you ever felt an overwhelming desire to befriend intimately a complete stranger? What a silly question to ask. Of course you have felt this kind of brief, chance encounter, this "brush" of instantaneous appeal, this little lucky, divine intervention of chance. You have been caught in the crossfire of longing and acting upon your intuitions. Risky business or love at first sight? I guess that depends on the situation and the actors in this human drama.

In the poem "To a Stranger," Walt Whitman has the reader contemplate a special friendship, not a friendship with another person in a realized relationship, but an intimate friendship secured in a singular "passing."

Clearly, the speaker in the poem sees brief, chance encounters with strangers as appropriate opportunities for strangers to interact. Whitman deploys a mouthpiece with an active voice who articulates directly to the subject of the poem, the passing stranger. Yet, does the speaker employ audible words in this interaction, or are these words just recollections of some imagined friendship? They seem to be be merely hopeful thoughts evoked by an irresistibly attractive image. 

Despite the question of outward or inward monologue in his direct address, the speaker builds critical understandings of his desire for intimacy with his reminiscence.

"All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured
You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me,
I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only, nor left my body mine only,"

It seems the speaker in the verse reveals a covetous dream that has yet to materialize -- love with "a he or a she" he seeks, a "dream" of incredible happiness with another he has not yet met. He longs for the dearest bond of his as-yet incomplete life.

In weaving this dream, he is comfortably able to imagine himself with a history shared with this passing stranger and to foresee blissful opportunities for them to enjoy each other in physically affectionate ways.

"You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,"

Yet, could these imagined encounters be considered forbidden love? Should such liberties, even though they are dreams bedded in fantasy, be acceptable as natural wishes of the human psyche? More than playful release, do the longings of a stranger feed his own inadequacy and feelings of rejection?

This wistful longing may be lustful and indicative of insatiable, covetous desire. Or, perhaps, it speaks of love that is deemed socially taboo at the time.

It is true that many historians continue to debate Walt Whitman's sexuality. He is usually described as either homosexual or bisexual in his feelings and attractions. However, there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men. The poem can certainly be read as affectionate musings on friendships void of sexual relations.

Lewd or innocent? What difference does it really make? Perhaps humanistic is the best adjective for describing the love in the verse.

"I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again
I am to see to it that I do not lose you."

In the end, the speaker understands that he is not supposed to speak to the object of his affection. This would somehow be wrong. Instead, he is to wait -- to patiently anticipate another encounter with his "passing" desire. Yet, it seems only thoughts and dreams are fertile ground for claiming possession of his love. 

Does the speaker want to return to his dreams in order "not to lose" his paramour? Of this, I am uncertain. Whitman does express hope for fertile return and faith in all beautiful recollection, even if that recollection resides in the land of dreams.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most significant nineteenth century poets. He has been claimed as America's first "poet of democracy," a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character. Some call Whitman the "father of free verse," though he did not invent it.

Born on Long Island, Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and received limited formal education. His occupations during his lifetime included printer, schoolteacher, reporter, and editor.

A British friend of Walt Whitman, Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, wrote: "You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him."

Whitman’s self-published Leaves of Grass was inspired in part by his travels through the American frontier and by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. This important publication underwent eight subsequent editions during his lifetime as Whitman expanded and revised the poetry and added more to the original collection of twelve poems. Emerson himself declared the first edition was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

As an American epic, Leaves of Grass deviated from the historic use of an elevated hero and instead assumed the identity of the common people. He believed there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society.  

Upon publishing Leaves of Grass, Whitman was subsequently fired from his job with the Department of the Interior.

Many critics and readers alike found both Whitman’s style and subject matter in Leaves of Grass unnerving. The poetry responded to the impact that recent urbanization in the United States had on the masses. And, he openly wrote about death and sexuality, including prostitution. Despite his mixed critical reception in the U.S., he was favorably received in England.

According to The Longman Anthology of Poetry, “Whitman received little public acclaim for his poems during his lifetime for several reasons:  this openness regarding sex, his self-presentation as a rough working man, and his stylistic innovations.”

The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass:

"If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson's two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson's, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass."

 Whitman Trivia

* Whitman's vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the Beat movement and its leaders such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and 1960s as well as anti-war poets like Adrienne Rich and Gary Snyder.

* Whitman also influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and was the model for the character of Dracula. Stoker said in his notes that Dracula represented the quintessential male which, to Stoker, was Whitman, with whom he corresponded until Whitman's death

* Whitman's poetry has been set to music by a large number of composers; indeed it has been suggested his poetry has been set to music more than any other American poet except for Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

Popular Song Theme

"Just My Imagination"

by the Temptations

Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by.
I say to myself, you're such a lucky guy.
To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true.
Out of all the fellas in the world, she belongs to me.

But it was just my imagination, running away with me.
It was just my imagination, running away with me.

(Soon) Soon we'll be married and raise a family. (Oh, yeah)
A cozy little home out in the country with two children, maybe three.
I tell you, I can visualize it all. This couldn't be a dream, for too real it all seems.

But it was just my imagination, once again.
Running away with me.
Tell you it was just my imagination,
Running away with me.

Every night on my knees I pray:

"Dear Lord, hear my plea.
Don't ever let another take her love from me.
Or I will surely die."

(Her love is) heavenly.
When her arms enfold me.
I hear a tender rhapsody.
But in reality, she doesn't even know me.

Just my imagination, once again.
Running away with me.
Oh, tell you it was just my imagination,
Running away with me.

I never met her but I can't forget her.
Just my imagination,
Ooo yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Running away with me.

Ooo, just my imagination running away with me.
She's in my mind and hard to find.

Just my imagination...

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