Walt Whitman

[Interview by Brian Hendricks / Illustration by Hugo Guinness]

Hobo #14 – Vancouver, April 2012. The author of Leaves of Grass wrote in his final year, 1891, that the strongest and sweetest songs remain yet to be sung. It was a distinct honor and privilege to catch up to him in 2012 and investigate further.

Brian Hendricks. — What do you think of New York? Are you able to find enough inspiration and silence to create your poems?
Walt Whitman. — Silence? What can New York—noisy, roaring, rumbling, tumbling, bustling, story, turbulent New York—have to do with silence? Amid the universal clatter, the incessant din of business, the all swallowing vortex of the great money whirlpool—who has any, even distant, idea of the profound repose… of silence?

— You have such a strong sense of identity. Do you ever lose sight of your core self?
— I meet new Walt Whitmans everyday. There are a dozen of them afloat. I don’t know which Walt Whitman I am.

— Are we still living in a democracy? Are we as equal and free as we should be?
— I’m tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We are supposed to work it.

— Are there aspects of society that you avoid?
— I will not descend among professors and capitalists.

— Should we be concerned with what’s happening politically these days?
— There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.— What do we mean when we talk about success and failure? Do we ever truly succeed at anything or is everything just a qualified form of failure?
— Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

— Where do we find the ‘truth’?
— Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.

— Could you elaborate on that?
— I am too not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. I exist as I am, that is enough.

— What is your main function as a writer?
— A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibility of their own souls. The mark of a true writer is their ability to mystify the familiar and familiarize the strange. To have great poets, there must be great audiences.

— Are there still things worth writing about, issues that can instill real change and enlightenment?
— The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. Oh, to be alive in such an age, when miracles are everywhere, and every inch of common air throbs a tremendous prophecy, of greater marvels yet to be. But besides that, a morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

— You seem to have an elevated optimism that is perhaps not as common among the rest of us?
— I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Henceforth I ask not good fortune. I myself am good fortune.

— I appreciate that we may share the same enthusiasm but do you ever feel as though you’ve been blessed with a more active spirit?
— My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole earth. I have looked for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands, I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.

— Do you ever feel depressed or even defeated?
— If the wind will not serve, take to the oars. To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle.

— How do we overcome the resistance of those who don’t believe in or support our creative efforts?
— Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

— How would you define a perfect writer?
— A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do anything that man or woman or the natural powers can do.

— Is there a secret to writing you could share with us?
— The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation without worrying about their style—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote—wrote, wrote… by writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.

— What is it that keeps us going, keeps us motivated to invent and create new ideas and stories? What hope can you provide the artist from your own experience?
— Say on, sayers! sing on, singers! Delve! mould! pile the words of the earth! Work on, age after age, nothing is to be lost, It may have to wait long, but it will certainly come in use, When the materials are all prepared and ready, the architects shall appear.

— And writing as an extension of our life. What is the main key to living to the fullest?
— This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

— How do we reach our potential? How do we access our inner hero?
— There is no trade or employment but the young person following it may become a hero.

— Do we need teachers to guide us and steer us in the right direction?
— He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher. Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.

— What is the basis of a life well lived?
— To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better place than we found it, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.

— How do we gain the necessary knowledge, wisdom, to flourish and succeed in a world so burdened with information and choices?
— Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools, wisdom cannot be passed from one having it to another not having it, wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.

— Could you provide any directions, a road map, that has served you well in that quest for wisdom? Something we could apply to our own journey?
— Not I—not anyone else, can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself.