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The Whitman Dash

Published on June 14, 2016 10:36AM

A few months back, I reread Walt Whitman’s autobiographical “Specimen Days” and came across an old annotation of mine that highlighted a fascinating story from Whitman’s youth. He wrote:

While living in Brooklyn, (1836-1850) I went regularly every week in the mild seasons down to Coney Island, at the time a long, bare unfrequented shore, which I had all to myself, and where I loved, after bathing, to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and sea gulls by the hour.

The “soothing rustle of the waves” and the “saline smell” of the ocean, as he wrote in “Specimen Days,” used to drive a young Walt Whitman mad. He hadn’t yet revolutionized poetry with his uniquely American exhortations that would later emerge in “Leaves of Grass,” but one has to consider that his solo dashes along the shoreline, presumably naked, inspired part of his free verse revolution. It was like Walt Whitman took the clothes off himself and by extension his poetry.

At least I like to think so. I certainly read “Leaves of Grass” that way. How can you not?

Interestingly enough, in “Specimen Days,” Whitman also recalled that in his youth he had a “fancy” to write a book about the ocean, expressing its “liquid, mystic theme,” but eventually chose not to in a deliberate creative decision. Rather, he decided the seashore would be an, “invisible influence, a pervading gauge and tally for me, in my composition.”

Oh, to have read Whitman’s book about the ocean! Maybe I’ll write it for him one day.

Taking the clothes off something. There is a powerful metaphor at work in that image. There is also something powerful in the reality of it.

I confess: I frequently make the Whitman Dash in the mild seasons and when no one is around. Actually, it’s not really a confession. I’ve written about it several times in this column and the greatest collective Whitman Dash in the history of world literature appears in the culminating chapter of my Oregon beach novel, “The Great Birthright.”

My dashes are completely unplanned. There I am, walking fully clothed along the seashore, declaiming The Rolling Stones, Robinson Jeffers or Emily Dickinson, and then I feel it — the urge, urge, urge — as Whitman wrote in “Leaves of Grass.”

The next thing I know, I am running madly to the ocean (the dogs never follow me…they know this is my gig) and diving headlong into the surf. I let the waves roll over me a few times, taste the salt, and then I sprint back to the wrack line where I piled my clothes, or more likely strewn about.

Naturally, I have no towel, but my trusty corduroy coat does a good job drying me off.

With my dashes, I don’t know if I revolutionized anything outside my entire creative and sensual life, but that’s good enough for me.

Try it. It might lead to a revolution in your life, or something, much, much larger.

Let me stipulate something: this is not skinny dipping at night, drunk or stoned, with people in party mode, hashtagging the magic out of the moment. This is not New Year’s Day polar bear jumps with applause from bystanders and digital documentation.

This is a solo private dash into the beautiful madness of Walt Whitman, the madness to be in contact with nature and the source of where all life began.

As I said, try it.

Okay, okay. An accomplice is acceptable. Sometimes.

Matt Love is author/editor of 14 books, including his debut novel, “The Great Birthright.” They are available at coastal bookstores, through www.nestuccaspitpress.com and local libraries.

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