Thursday, May 24, 2012

Martin Espada Walks With Walt

Martin Espada and Walt Whitman. It should come as no surprise that Martin Espada's got an affinity for the guy.

Think about it. Better yet, read about it.

An inveterate advocate for the disenfranchised in America, Espada -- this year's poet in residence at the Whitman Birthplace in West Hills LI -- announced his feelings about Whitman loud and clear back in 2005 when he declared in an interview with the Walt Whitman Quarterly that while America as a society is still not ready for the Good Gray Poet's message, poets like him are.

"In a really tangible way, we’re not ready for Whitman as a society,"
said Espada in the interview ( "We’re still not ready for his message of radical egalitarianism; we’re certainly not ready for his expressions of compassion for everyone and many of us, I should add, are not ready for his sexuality."

The whole interview can be read on Espada's website. But a few excerpts are sufficient to reveal how profoundly Espada has thought through his connection to Whitman, and the importance of his message today.

"I had to come to Whitman on my own and very slowly," says Espada, who will be reading at the Whitman birthplace on Saturday, Jun 2. "When I did, I realized something, which is that I had been reading Whitman all along without knowing it. His influence is that pervasive. You can read a poet like Allen Ginsberg or, for that matter, a poet like Pablo Neruda and not realize you’re reading Whitman."

Whitman, as an iconic and multivariegated American poet, is a touchstone for a host of ideas and points of view. But it's no surprise what particular part of Whitman most appeals to Martin Espada -- Whitman the advocate. "If you look at the 1855 introduction to Leaves of Grass – the first edition – you’ll find a passage that’s very telling when it comes to Whitman the advocate. It’s Whitman there who says that the duty of the poet is to “cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” I can identify with that."

Espada keeps company with Jack Kerouac in targeting that line.

Kerouac, in Dharma Bums, says this: i've been reading whitman, you know what he says, cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the bard, the zen lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, dharma bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and there have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, tv sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume... 

Kerouac gets an anti consumer bop lunacy kick out of Whitman. By contrast, Espada's point is decidely more political -- and pointed.

"In Leaves of Grass you are immediately struck by Whitman’s faith both in poetry and in democracy. It’s a faith that we need to reassert in these days. Certainly, I think the universal compassion expressed in Leaves of Grass has to be reasserted. This is another timely lesson for us now. It’s not a coincidence that certain kinds of people recur throughout his work, especially in “Song of Myself.” We can see the pattern by which prisoners, prostitutes and slaves keep cropping up in Whitman’s verse. He makes continual statements of solidarity with these most marginalized of people. We need more of that today.”

Those who attend Espada's reading on Saturday June 2nd are likely to get a healthy dose of Whitman's faith and message, filtered through the eyes, ears and voice of a poet and a man whose viewpoint so aligns with that of Walt that he once stood before a commencement hall at Hampshire College and declared this:

"Make sure that compassion is the guiding principle of your republic, the pulse of your poetry. Walt Whitman, the bard of prisoners, prostitutes and slaves, insists that 'whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks/to his own funeral dressed in his shroud."

I can roll with that.


Martin Espada Walks with Whitman as this year's poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, LI. Espada will be teaching a Master Class Sat Jun 2 2012 at midday, and reading that evening at 5 p.m. Visit their website for details:

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