Sunday Poem

A Politically Incorrect Ode to Whitman

Whitman isn’t in
He will not be in
This year or the next

He’s gone out
Far out where the two
Americas meet like kissing whales

Beyond the net
Of the universities
Whitman celebrates his absence

Old grampus
Without a postmodern
Stitch on him he reads himself

Sitting naked
On leaves of grass
Sounding his barbaric yawp

Forever thirty-seven
And in perfect health chewing
The heads off dandelions and theorists

Which right-thinking critic
Would not like to put to sleep
This unconcerned ecologically hazardous

Phallogocentric brute
Once and for all in that
Endlessly rocking cradle of his?

But damn Whitman!
There’s no putting him out
He says his sex contains all bodies, souls

This his self-description:
Stern, acrid, large, undissuadable
And help! Also draining the pent-up

Of himself
Into women and demanding
Perfection from his love-spendings

Whitman alters
What he grandly calls
The base of all metaphysics

His gods
Are stones and sinews
Or an occult Brahma encountered

Far back on that reckless
Passage to India descending radiating

His incantatory texts
And striding back and forth between
Vaunt’d Ionia and Sanskrit and the Vedas

Affected by a chronic logorrhoea
It’s clear the fellow abhors silence,
All the time of puzzles to be solv’d and
blanks to be fill’d

Blissfully ignorant
That erasure is essential
Words treacherous and that doubt wafts
in every human soul

Ah how I’d like
To introduce Walt to wordplay
Brackets and all the joys of paranomasia

How he’d love it too!
Whit(e)man caring not a whit
Careening down passion’s witless slopes

Waltzing with Whitman
Could be such fun but he flatly
Refuses to rise to all my intellectual baits

He says he will not be
Darken’d and daz’d by books any more
He will steer for deep waters only and the

And, sorry, poor dullards
Noodling in the groves of academe

Whitman will not
Be in this year or the next
It’s the uncharted courses he’s out to

by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

from Yellow Hibiscus: New and Selected Poems
Publisher: Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004

Poet's Note: It is worth noting that the famous phrase ‘passage to India’ was first coined by Whitman, who was romantically fascinated by the subcontinent. This poem was written after I overheard a discussion at an American university about whether or not Whitman should be included in the syllabus, given his overt sexism. Many of the phrases in my poem are direct quotations from him.