Off North Road: For Stanley Burnshaw, on his 90th
October 6 , 2005
More than 20 years ago, Stanley graciously gave me an inscribed copy of his then newly published "The Seamless Web." Its inscription reads as follows: "For Russell Hoxsie with thoughts of Emerson's remark to Whitman ... from Stanley Burnshaw June 28, 1978." I was one of several who remembered Stanley at a gathering at Bob and Maggie Schwartz's home in West Tisbury for his 90th birthday.
I felt rather like a Lilliputian wandering into a great and ancient marble hall filled with heroic statues of the age. Could Stanley really have been speaking of or to me? Just what was the remark or remarks Emerson made to Whitman? My usual source, Milton Mazer, couldn't tell me, so I started a bit of research to see if I could fathom it out.
I came across my musty Penguin 1959 edition of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Its introduction produced this letter to Whitman from Emerson of July 21, 1855.
"I am not blind to this wonderful gift of ‘Leaves of Grass.' I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.... I find incomparable things said incomparably well.... I greet you at the beginning of a great career...."
Of course, I dismissed this quoted remark as too hyperbolic for my slender talents even given the well-known generosity of spirit that Stanley possesses. I searched further and to my great surprise came upon things I had not dreamed of. My own slim Whitman did not contain these references that follow. I was in fact learning more in my small research than I had planned, but it proved interesting. The following comes from "Walt Whitman - A Life" by Justin Kaplan:
"On March 15, 1860, Emerson called at Whitman's rented room downtown [in Boston], greeted him with great courtesy ... registered him for guest reading privileges at the Boston Athenaeum. Before their late midday dinner they walked for two hours crossing and recrossing the Common under the bare elms along the Beacon Street slope. Emerson cited such provocations to public complacency as the [Whitman] poem, "A Common Prostitute."
"Be composed - be at ease with me - I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you,"
"The times and the taste of the times were not ready," Emerson argued … "talking the finest talk that was ever talked," as Whitman recalled.
"The mere mention of nakedness and the limbs of the body was taboo." Emerson continued. "Sexuality, especially the sexuality of women, was an unholy secret, to be kept, not flaunted."
And yet here was Whitman flaunting it. The five lines Emerson quotes as evidence of the flaunt have been omitted here in the interest of maintaining some decorum for a family newspaper. The reader may refer to Kaplan's "Walt Whitman - A Life" (page 147-8) for details.
The objections Emerson raised were in the end neither moral nor aesthetic; they were purely prudential ... there was a limit to how far Whitman could exercise the "free and brave thought," Kaplan concluded.
W: "But would there be as good a book left?"
E: "I did not say as good a book. I said a good book."
W: "If I had cut sex out, I might just as well have cut everything out - sex was the roots, the life beneath the life...."
Kaplan continues Whitman's argument: "Without ‘Children of Adam' the entire structure of Leaves of Grass would come down about his ears."
W: "The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. Expurgation is an apology - yes, surrender - yes, an admission that something or other was wrong. Emerson said expurgate. I said no, no. I have not lived to regret my Emerson no... down deep in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all and pursue my own way. ‘Leaves of Grass' would have to stand or fall on its own."
Kaplan ends this section: [After this exchange of remarks] "They went to the American House and had a "bully dinner."
Had I found remarks that were apt for R. Hoxsie? How would Stanley have related any of this discussion to anything he had heard of mine? Then, I remembered my own early poem, "Green Country Grass," remarkably entitled, given the title of Whitman's epic poem, which I may have read in Stanley's presence.
The dew was so thick
On the green country grass
My feet would be soaked
Just walking to the old
Wet shoes, dry by ten
And caked with rich brown garden.
New peas cried for weeding
Carrot fledglings struggled to breathe.
Sweat pearled my brow
As my knees rounded the cool earth.
Reaching, pulling, kneading
Seized my spine
In a premonition of old age.
The brown cathedral barn stretched
Into the dimming light
Let down by the cupola
With all its rushing winds.
The browns silted the slanting light.
The hay and dust framed the farmer's hands
Squeezing white frothing milk
Into the barn cat's mouth
And onto my wet sock.
Jersey's heavy cream,
Guernsey's bubbly brew
And Holstein's, black and white, -
Ten pounds in each pail full -
Twice a day processed by hand
And whirred through metal discs
Separating cream and skim.
Low beams showed fly specks
And flaking whitewash.
I reached the ceiling with a jump
In a shed built to hold the heat,
The steam on a cold morning
Rose from my breath and the gleaming pails.
That hoe, encrusted in the corner
Served my internship.
How I jumped when the gush
Of urine splattered
Or the gargantuan dung plopped
In the trough in a rush.
The tightening of sphincters
Warned of impending excretion.
My stolen glance at the pink
Of interior cavities
Previewed the human condition.