This weekend marks the 195th birthday of arguably the most American of American poets, Walt Whitman. Equally beloved and hated by literature students across this nation (in the interest of full disclosure, I fall into the latter category), Whitman is best known for his seminal collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. He’s also well known for his, well, overt homoeroticism, particularly in the epic poem “Song of Myself.” You could celebrate his birthday by reading the poem in its entirety, or you could just stick to the gay parts, which I have pulled for your convenience here. What does this truncated version of the poem teach us? Walt Whitman was a horny guy, for sure.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean, Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me, I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time; You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore, Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly; Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair, Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market, I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and break-down.
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil, Each has his main-sledge, they are all out, there is a great heat in the fire.
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hip-band, His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead, The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of his polish’d and perfect limbs.
The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him;)
I beat and pound for the dead, I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth, I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart, Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you! Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you! Hands I have taken, face I have kiss’d, mortal I have ever touch’d, it shall be you.
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me, The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial, Depriving me of my best as for a purpose, Unbuttoning my clothes, holding me by the bare waist, Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture-fields, Immodestly sliding the fellow-senses away, They bribed to swap off with touch and go and graze at the edges of me, No consideration, no regard for my draining strength or my anger, Fetching the rest of the herd around to enjoy them a while, Then all uniting to stand on a headland and worry me.
You villain touch! what are you doing? my breath is tight in its throat, Unclench your floodgates, you are too much for me.
His nostrils dilate as my heels embrace him, His well-built limbs tremble with pleasure as we race around and return. I but use you a minute, then I resign you, stallion, Why do I need your paces when I myself out-gallop them? Even as I stand or sit passing faster than you.
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine, I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
You laggards there on guard! look to your arms! In at the conquer’d doors they crowd! I am possess’d! Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering, See myself in prison shaped like another man, And feel the dull unintermitted pain, For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch, It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.
Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side, (I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)
Wherever he goes men and women accept and desire him, They desire he should like them, touch them, speak to them, stay with them.
Man or woman, I might tell how I like you, but cannot, And might tell what it is in me and what it is in you, but cannot, And might tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days.
You there, impotent, loose in the knees, Open your scarf’d chops till I blow grit within you, Spread your palms and life the flaps of your pockets, I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare, And any thing I have I bestow.
I do not ask who you are, that is not important to me, You can do nothing and be nothing but what I will infold you.
To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean, On his right cheek I put the family kiss, And in my soul I swear I never will deny him.
I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will, O despairer, here is my neck, By God, you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me.
Easily written loose-finger’d chords — I feel the thrum of your climax and close.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip, And in due time you shall repay the same service to me, For after we start we never lie by again.
Sit a while dear son, Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink, But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.
The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived power, but in his own right, Wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear, Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak, Unrequited love or a slight cutting him worse than sharp steel cuts,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you, Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)
The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well, The woodman that takes his axe and jug with him shall take me with him all day, The farm-boy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice, In vessels that sail my words sail, I go with fishermen and seamen and love them.
The soldier camp’d or upon the march is mine, On the night ere the pending battle many seek me, and I do not fail them,
On that solemn night (it may be their last) those that know me seek me.
My face rubs to the hunter’s face when he lies down alone in his blanket, The driver thinking of me does not mind the jolt of his wagon,
There is that in me — I do not know what it is — but I know it is in me.