Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 25 August, 1997


The Calamus Poems by Walt Whitman

Celebrated by Contemporary Photographers

Book Review by Jack Nichols

Whitman's Men: The Calamus Poems by Walt Whitman, Poetry Selected and Introduced by David Groff; Photography Selected, Edited and Introduced by Richard Berman. New York: Universe Publishing, A Division of Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1996., 80 pp., hard cover, $18.95.

Giving surprising credit to 19th Century male mores, masculine love is effectively resurrected in Whitman's Men, a book of fine photography, including evocations of 19th century scenery, exquisite and homey tokens of a period too often treated as unduly primitive by critics stumbling through these post-modern times.

The book's magnificent photographs, selected by Richard Berman, are accompanied by verses chosen by David Groff from the Calumus poems in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, perhaps the most famous poetic cluster ever devoted to adhesiveness (the word selected by Whitman to celebrate those sweet passions inherent in male bonding).

It has long been the unwavering conviction of this reviewer that without the help these Calamus poems bring, backed by the expansive visions of Whitman's Leaves themselves, much that goes by the name of male homosexuality and American culture generally will continue to wallow needlessly in undeserved confusions and dissatisfactions. Whitman, now finally recognized as our nation's greatest poet, laid the primary groundwork for the liberation of same-sex love, including within his vision the principle of the equality of the sexes. "The Female equally with the Male I sing."

The Calamus section of poems, however, are wholly in a masculine vein. If it is true, and I believe it is, that we are or we become what we absorb-- whether consciously or unconsciously--then the Calamus poems require of us not only repetitive reads, but the necessity of very careful memorization. The poems must be memorized not for their poetic perfection, since not everyone is open to poetry, but for their powerfully scripted philosophies, ideas, questions and behaviors that make the best portal in all of world literature to profound understandings of the self and of others emerging into our seemingly mysterious environs of male sexuality and love.

If you're a gay male, in other words, or a "straight" one for that matter, you can't afford to be without old Walt. As he beckons, take him eagerly by the hand, which he boldly asks you to do, and travel with this seductive Muse to a realm where manly love is linked to the fortunes not only of each love-longing individual, but to our currently scrambled ideals of democratic American life itself. Walt Whitman's fusion of sexuality, nature, and spirit are sufficient to our highest purposes, and will unite us effectively, as Whitman promises in his Calamus poems:

These shall tie and band stronger than hoops of iron, I, ecstatic, O partners! O lands! henceforth with the love of lovers tie you.

I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon.

I will make divine magnetic lands.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's necks.

Was Walt Whitman proud of his poetry? Of course, but it was not simply as a poet that he wished to be remembered. He counseled future poets thusly:

You bards of ages hence! when you refer to me,

mind not so much my poems,

Nor speak of me that I prophesied of The States,

and led them the way of their glories;

But come, I will take you down underneath this

impassive exterior--I will tell you what to say of me:

Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of

the tenderest lover,

The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his

lover, was fondest.

Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless

ocean of love within him--and freely poured it fourth,

Who often walked lonesome walks, thinking of his

dear friends, his lovers,

Who pensive, away from one he loved, often lay sleepless

and dissatisfied at night,

Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one

he loved might secretly be indifferent to him,

Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in

woods, on hills, he and another, wandering hand

in hand, they twain, apart from other men,

Who oft as he sauntered the streets, curved with his

arm the shoulder of his friend--while the arm of

his friend rested upon him also.

The photographers chosen for this book have done a great cultural service to views that should rightly surround male homosexual love. While they do give focus to a sufficiency of those ever-sought-after bodies beautiful, more importantly, their work is a celebration of the ordinary man.

Looks-ism is hereby properly circumvented and daily realities-- a fellow with "ugly" hair on his back, for example,--step bravely beyond today's airbrushed muscles and our current culture's alienating "pretty-boy" commercialism.

Table settings from the 19th century are interspersed with outdoor bathing tubs, and a mantle-piece extraordinaire is so perfectly presented that it ignites almost mystic reveries.

The featured photographers whose works so aptly celebrate Whitman are: Mark Beard, John Dugdale, Robert Flynt, Bill Jacobson, Russell Maynor, Steve Morrison, and Frank Yamrus.

David Groff, a long-time editor in the New York publishing scene and Richard Berman, an independent scholar and consultant in Italian Baroque drawings whose interests extend to contemporary art, have, through their choices in this collection, created an unparalleled tribute to Walt Whitman and to the visionary world culture embracing passionate male love that the great poet prophesied.

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission e-mail