Please see my new Interview with the editor of the Advocate: America's leading LGBT Magazine: http://www.advocate.com/Arts_and_Entertainment/Books/Walt_Whitman_Poet_Shaman/
With the approach of Gay Pride, 2011, I would like to blog on my favorite poet, Walt Whitman. As I show in my book, Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy, and the World Soul, Whitman announced on the eve of the American Civil War in 1860 that we are all equals in the marriage-dance of nations. His announcement of bi-erotic love is at the base of a just and equitable society in America and the world. Whitman predicted over 150 years ago that the marriage bond would eventually be equalized. In what he called his “New Bible,” Whitman gave birth to a new religious symbol for the advancement of human civilization and culture, namely the poetic image of the “new husband,” the archetype of same-sex marriage. I have come to view Whitman’s bi-eroticism in his two poetic clusters, “Children of Adam,” and “Calamus,” as pivotal to his vision of Spiritual Democracy, which does not leave anyone out. His poetry expresses the paradox of masculine and feminine opposites that has traditionally limited the fantasies of poets. A basic principle in his Spiritual Democracy appears to be the bi-erotic nature of the Soul. In Whitman’s view, body and soul are one; there is no division, no higher and lower copulation imagery may be found in his poems; both are equally divine. Only the head creates dualisms, whereas the awakened body and soul yoked together in the love-grip create unions, heterosexual and homosexual unions, and they are equals; hence, his call to write a “New Bible.”
Standing up for the sexual in all its forms was Whitman’s “life task.” Looking at the entire corpus of his writings and studying carefully where he put the homosexuality in and where he left it out, it is clear to me that he formulated a Spiritual Democracy that would include everyone’s bodily experience. He needed to include his own sexuality enough to consider women’s experience too and what he wrote is still true today, as it was when he was first read by women in his day who really felt liberated by him. The homosexual liberation movement was only one of his children in a Spiritual Democracy. This is to say that there were many children in Whitman’s calling. His poetic project was based on a Spiritual Democracy that includes love for each of us. What homosexuality meant to Whitman is the end to sexual discrimination, marriage equality for all people: celebration of the cornerstone of the new religion of Spiritual Democracy that he inaugurates for us.
My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and
Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession, rapt…
beating the serpent-skin drum,
Accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing assuredly that he is divine.
That the early Walt Whitman really saw himself as the leader of a phallic “procession of laughing pioneers,” with their “wild trilling bugles of joy,” dancing rapturously in the streets, can hardly be disputed as a fact of his poetic imagination in 1855, yet, he changed his focus in the writing of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, and made a dramatic shift in 1860 towards the Bi-Erotic. In order to become the poet the Bi-Erotic Imagination—the poet of everyone, Heterosexuals, Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgender people—he would have to employ heterosexual and bisexual imagery side by side with equal value to serve as the people’s transport. In 1860 he saw himself as the inauguratus (one who inaugurates), who would “drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion” (LG, 181). By way of corrective and compensatory Bi-erotic symbols, he sought to confront the world-wide epidemic of homophobia in 1860 with a vision of transcendent Love. Whitman assumes such a transgressive position beautifully in his prose essay “Democratic Vistas” in 1871, and it is no exaggeration to assert that he was a forerunner of the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements in America.
Whitman came to his own as a poet in 1847, a year before the inauguration of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Movement, where the institution of marriage was of major concern. Whitman’s most revealing portrait of marriage appears in the 1871 poem “Passage to India,” where he envisions a great circle of married partners “holding a festal garland, / As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand” (LG, 535). It is here, I believe, that the symbol of the unification of the lands, geographies, and nations dancing before our eyes in a large marriage-circle shines forth with resplendent multicultural meanings for the evolution of Spiritual Democracy across the world. This is a beautiful passage, especially because he does not tell us what genders the brides and bridegrooms are; or what their sexual orientations might be. He leaves the mystery of marriage sacred, as a sociopolitical and spiritual goal to be worked out in the democracy of the world’s future.
In “Passage to India” Whitman offers us an image of marriage that suggests a wide possibility of meanings. In his poetry he posits in the circle of brides and bridegrooms an image of marriage that the world needs for the present and future. Whitman, so far ahead of his time in so many ways, was not so easily led astray by the collective thinking of his day. As further evidence for my hypothesis of the Bi-Erotic, are the “portraits” of same-sex marriage, photos (fourteen in total) that contain images of Whitman with four different young men in a “wedding pose.” In each of the portraits with the four friends—Peter Doyle, Harry Stafford, Bill Duckett, and Warren Fritzinger—Whitman is said to be “cross-posing” in “traditional wedding poses of an old man/bride/groom” married to a “young man/groom/bride” (Folsom, E. 1996. "Whitman's Calamus Photos," in Breaking Bounds: Whitman & Amercian Cultural Studies, New York: Oxford, 205).
What Whitman adds to the marriage discussion is what we do not find anywhere else and that is the idea of Spiritual Democracy itself. What Whitman tells us is that our religions need to catch up with the changes that are taking place in our political discussions around issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation. He illuminates the need for an unbiased religious attitude as more all-encompassing than any other religious attitude because it does not exclude anybody on the basis of their sexual preference. He gets to the common element in all religions, which is affection. The world wants equality. All religions want this. As more and more people demand equal rights it, it will come about. It is like women’s rights: when enough women spoke up, the vote happened!
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