Drooling on the Pillow

Friday, April 01, 2005

Whitman and Ali 

There's an article in today's New York Sun on the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that brings up a painful memory.

I love my older sister, but I love to rankle her. In the spirit of deliberate offensiveness I once declared to her that Walt Whitman was a fraud and Leaves of Grass was garbage. It was a kind of Whitmaneque remark, really, and obtained the desired result. Her look, usually one of outrage and horror upon my pronouncements deflated like one whose fingers have slipped off the life-saving branch as they plunge into the canyon. My brother, it said, not just a Republican, but a moron.

It was also made almost completely in ignorance. I may have read a few stanzas of Whitman in high school, but I don't remember doing so. What moved me that day was a few lines of from Song of Myself in the Sunday Times done in his most unlimbered grocery list style, pre-channeling Bob Dylan.

Since then I've done some reading. It's hard, because each time I dip into Leaves of Grass I'm reminded just what a moron I was that day. I've written poetry all my life, but I couldn't do this:

I depart as air ... I shake my white
locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift
it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow
from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me
under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or
what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep
Missing me one place search
I stop some where waiting for you.

Oddly enough, neither could he. There is almost nothing useful or interesting, much less beautiful in anything he ever did except this one book.

What Whitman did for poetry and American literature in 1855 was akin to what drugs did for American music and culture in the 1960s. He destroyed the concept of rules and set everything adrift. Far, far too frightening for most, a few talented individuals followed him and thrived and hoards of talentless layabouts became 'poets'. His legacy is one magnificent book, a new way of looking at poetry, a handful of brilliant disciples and 700 tons of bad lyrics.

Another way to play epater la soeur was to bad-mouth Mohammed Ali, her especial hero. That really made her nuts. Here, though, I think I'm on more solid ground.

Ali was unquestionably one of the very greatest boxers of all time. I can't think of anyone who combined such quickness, power, cleverness, courage and viciousness in a heavyweight frame. Culturally, he was also significant. Emerging directly from the civil rights era he snapped the nation's head back with his playful arrogance, directness and unyielding insistence on his rights. All delivered by as good looking and charming a guy as we had ever seen. He broke many rules and not only got away with it, but was celebrated for it.

He has a lot to answer for, though. Ali mainstreamed chest-thumping. He normalized humiliating your opponent. It was a good act, if it was an act, but it was culturally corrosive. If your self is Mohammed Ali, self regard may not be exceptionable, but if you're you or me, it's not nearly so amusing.

His legacy was a brilliant career, a few talented disciples and every asshole you meet on the subway and in the boardroom.
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