David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Whitman Notebook: From Yourself


Everyone has dreams. Everyone has ambitions.

Is it extravagant to be “in love with” dreams? Is “to go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked… / [to be] made for” dreams? Is it according to one’s strength or destiny? Is that the difference to fulfilling ambition? As if to be out on a ship at sea, a blaze of birds flying very close, and chanting? Their wings the color of gray and blue, white, green, and orange. Swooping close. Quietly close to one another. The wing tips nearly touching.

When it comes to dreams, the “atmosphere is not perfume,” says Walt Whitman. But it is the “smoke” of your own “breath, / Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers… love root, silk thread, crotch and vine.”

To write is not to dream.


To write is to be a fact, a quality, of your existence. Writing distinguishes me from the birds. On the page I find “respiration and inspiration… the beating of my heart… the passing of blood and air through my lungs.”

But the words and the birds need an invisible cord to be tied together.


When I read what Whitman says about the “passing of blood and air,” I ask, what if, century after century, the long grasses go on and on—separating and repeating themselves alongside the lawns of the brick houses, and the insecticide that can’t take out the cockroaches, and the families walking Saturday mornings to the synagogue—the mother and father ahead of their stubby children—vibrating thoughtfully in their exhausted bodies, and all anyone hears is the clack of shoes on the pavement?

What if every metaphor looks abstract, as far as the eye can see, in twilight, in late autumn?


At the words—“sound of the belched words of my voice… words loosed to the eddies of the wind”—I close my eyes for a long time and dream of nothing. No voice comes through, even as I sit in the inner east side of this city. No voice drops from the clouds. Between “belched” and “wind,” no voice comes to the island of the red chair on the piazza where I sit for a long time. No face appears on the face of the page.

Birds are flying. Some with black and white bars. Clouds break between them. Other birds are dotted red, decorated for “shine and shade.” Still other birds are entirely white with gray spots on their bellies, as if a grave were growing inside them.

I have never seen birds like these, and I look away to assemble the wet map of my reading where the traffic of letters thickens.

The dot on the letter “i” rises and falls.


From the Preface:

…the haughty defiance of ’76, and the war and peace and formation of the constitution… the Union always surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable—the perpetual coming of immigrants—the wharf-hem’d cities and superior marine—the unsurveyed interior—the loghouses and clearings and wild animals and hunters and trappers… the free commerce—the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging—


I often find myself mesmerized by the inconvenience of words. Whitman is a master of mesmerization, a master of all time. Master of the daylight hours. Master of the minutes of the nighttime. Master of speaking to the future.

His manner is always friendly, always offhand.

He brings a private worry so unlike the silence of a fine spider’s web.

He worries for everyone.


He’s a stamp. He’s a force—

…the general ardor and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male … the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population—the factories and mercantile life and laborsaving machinery—the Yankee swap—the New York firemen and the target excursion—the Southern plantation life—the character of the northeast and of the northwest and southwest—slavery and the tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease. For such the expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new. It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic.


With little warning Whitman offers to carry us free of charge, like a river carries water:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…


After each line and each stanza, Whitman makes a dam in the crook of my spine. He brings a wince up to my left eye. It’s like rocks being smashed with fish in the rapids, and the glistening water bristling on all sides. He brings my mother and father to the doorstep, but I do not have time to talk to them. Mother wants to come in like rain through an open window. Father wants to darken like wind and take the black stars into his mouth.

Go there and find them, says Walt Whitman.

“You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself,” Whitman says, and so I wander in the storm all the way back to the room I was born in, before memory showed its belly like a butterfly, and I learn to long again for being the child who I may only see once again in this lifetime before I’ve worn this skin out.

“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.”

Am I lonely with the spirit? I feel as if I could be soundless, like slipping out of bed in the darkness of the morning air.

“The song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.”


Again, “I sing myself.” As in, I sing Bach. I sing Amy Winehouse. I sing Myself.

Something of the nostalgia—future nostalgia—in that phrase, “song of me rising… meeting the sun.” To think of it is to imagine living quietly in a flat somewhere, in good America, a little walk up studio, enjoying a peaceful afternoon, content with whatever has occurred, like I’m a beggar with a dream. Monotony of daily life. Triumphs unnamed. Each face the same face distorted.

I press my fingers over his words. They are coarse and tender, affectionate, frank. I touch his hairy hands. Long fingers. High cheeks. His beard untrimmed, eyes sorrowful, energetic, reflecting upon. Clearly as he saw me, I see Whitman. I cannot rub him off. Like stains from a field of grass. Like the impression of wind. The pattern is insignificant, but must be known.

I hope everyone forgives me if the knot I tie between us is the wrong knot.


Rumpus original logo art by Genevieve Tyrrell.


In celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth in 1819, Poetry Wire will post David Biespiel’s serialized Whitman Notebook, his journal of reading the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself.” Read more entries here.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →