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O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

BP

Walt Whitman’s Raunchy Ode to New York City

“Give me the streets of Manhattan!”

New York City is not want for homages and celebrations — the deeply personal, the illustrated, the photographic, the cartographic, even the canine and the feline. But the most beautiful are invariably the poetic.

From the wonderful 1987 collection New York Observed: Artists and Writers Look at the City (public library) — a compendium of lore and perspectives on Gotham dating back to 1650 and featuring such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dozens more, edited by Barbara Cohen, Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller — comes a succulent love letter to the city from 48-year-old Walt Whitman. Penned in 1867, more than a decade after his iconic Leaves of Grass was published, the short poem compresses in a few lines Whitman’s boundless capacity for exaltation and embodies the “expression of primal joy” that defines his writing.

Allen Crawford from ‘Whitman Illuminated.’ Click image for more.

GIVE ME THE SPLENDID SILENT SUN

Keep your splendid silent sun,

Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,

Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards

Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;

Give me faces and streets — give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!

Give me interminable eyes — give me women — give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!

Let me see new ones every day — let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

Give me such shows — give me the streets of Manhattan!

Complement New York Observed, which is delightful in its entirety, with the best books on Gotham and famous writers’ diary entries about the city, then revisit the wonderful Whitman Illuminated.

BP

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Reimagined in Beautiful Illustrations by Artist Allen Crawford

“He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.”

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

Especially enchanting is Crawford’s heavy use of science-inspired imagery in his contemporary version of the illuminated manuscript, a medieval medium of religion.

All 256 pages between the beautifully fabric-bound covers of Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself are imbued with pure magic, the kind that takes you by the soul-strings and plays you like a billowing ballad.

Illustrations courtesy of Tin House Books; photographs my own

BP

Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice

36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

Complement with Whitman on democracy and the key to a healthy society, the power of music, his prescient reflections on integrating body and spirit in healthcare, and his abiding advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. For an extra helping of awe, savor James Earl Jones reading Whitman and this superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then revisit the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.

BP

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