Walt Whitman as Suicide Prevention

 

Walt Whitman

Any article entitled “How Walt Whitman Saved My Life” is sure to capture my attention.  (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish for alerting me to it.)  It’s about an English grad student and recovering alcoholic struggling to find reasons not to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge.  In Whitman, Michael Bourne found a poet “who seemed on intimate terms with the darkest, most secret side of himself, but who, instead of running from that scarifying Other, embraced it, even celebrated it.”

Below is an excerpt from Bourne’s article, which you can read in its entirety here:

One of the primary effects of the relaxed poetic line is the way it turns that most formal of literary interactions – a person reading a poem – into a conversation, you and old Walt, bellies to the bar, shooting the shit about the state of your immortal soul.

It was this intimacy, the sense Whitman creates in the original poems that not only is he talking to you but listening as well, that drew me in during that awful year in San Francisco. I was a young man who needed a good talking to, but also one yearning to be heard. I was living, like a lot of lost, lonely people, in a closed ecosystem of my own neuroses, which thrived on hours spent in bed mentally composing suicide notes that would, depending on my mood, devastate my loved ones or bring tears to their eyes at the lost promise of my genius. This was all so crazy I couldn’t possibly tell anyone, yet I desperately needed someone to tell. So, by some alchemical literary process I do not understand to this day, Walt Whitman became my confessor and courage-teacher. I sensed, correctly I think, that Whitman “got” it. He’d been there 150 years before I had, and if I could just teach myself how to listen to him, he might teach me how to stay alive.

And he did. The central tension in the poems in the 1855 edition is between “I” and “you.” The poet is constantly yearning to reach out to you; or reeling from contact with you; or entering into you, thinking your thoughts and feeling your feelings. But who is this you? Sometimes it’s the reader, while at other times it is some stranger the poet has picked out of the crowd, and at still other times it is “my soul” or the “other I am.” After many readings and re-readings, it occurred to me that what I had at first taken to be a conflation of “you’s,” or, worse, a simple confusion, was in fact the whole damn point. What Whitman is saying in Leaves of Grass is that we are all one and the same, not just in the political sense that the slave is equal in worth to the slave master, but that we are all intimately linked in one unbreakable chain of being. The fact that you exist is enough, because whether you have “outstript…the President” or are a “prostitute draggl[ing] her shawl,” by the mere fact of existing you take your rightful place in a miraculous, inter-connected system called the world.

This is why Walt Whitman, or you, or I can cock our hats as we please indoors or out, because no matter who we are, we are just as good and just as necessary as everyone else. But for me it also offered a route out of my endless, self-constructed maze of Self. If there is no wall between I and you, if we are all one and the same, what’s the point of hiding one from the other? Why not acknowledge that part of myself that wanted to die? Why not tell someone that while I never wanted to drink again, I was afraid I might lose my mind if I didn’t? Why not tell my parents I wasn’t the perfect son I wanted them to think I was? Why not sit in a church basement full of strangers, as I did once toward the end of that summer, crying like a baby because a woman had left me and I couldn’t blame her? Why not, if only for this one day, dare to be fully and completely alive?

 

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  • http://lhealey7604.blogspot.com Leslie Healey

    My students are big fans of John Green’s Paper Towns. In this novel, our hero uses an annotated copy of Leaves of Grass as clues to find a missing friend. Along the way, he falls in love with Whitman and eventually finds his friend and saves his own life, at least metaphorically. More than one student picked up Whitman as a result of reading the novel.

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t know this work, Leslie, but I will definitely check it out. It sounds wonderful. Do you think that your students would be attracted to Leaves of Grass if you told them that Bill Clinton used it to seduce Monica Lewinsky? (Or do they even know who Monica Lewinsky is now?) Of course, another way into “Uncle Walt” is through Dead Poets Society.


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