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(Cade Martin)

A Close, Intimate Look at Walt Whitman

A haunting image captures America’s quintessential poet, writes author Mark Strand

When we look at photographs of authors, especially famous authors, we scan their faces, hoping to find some connection between the way they look and their work. We never find it, or at least I never have, because we don’t know if such a connection actually exists or whether we would recognize it if it did. A penetrating gaze, a goofy grin, even wild hair, could belong to an average person as well as to a genius.

Even if we have numerous photographs of a single author, as we do of Whitman, it would be impossible to find that revealing feature or gesture that would establish the connection we seek. We might discover other things—how the writer wishes to be seen, in what light, in what clothes, in what place. In Whitman’s case, we can assume he preferred casual dress and liked to appear easygoing. This is especially true in the Samuel Hollyer engraving after a daguerreotype (now lost) by Gabriel Harrison taken when Whitman was 35. It appeared in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass.

In many subsequent photographs, he retains that easygoing air, but his look has softened, his beard has lengthened and his thinning hair has turned white. In some of them he wears a hat, always at a jaunty angle; in others he looks the way Santa Claus is supposed to look. But about none of them do we say, “Only a man with a face like that could have written Leaves of Grass.”

Although I can imagine our saying something close to that if we were looking at G. Frank Pearsall’s circa 1869 photograph of the poet. Whitman, seated at a desk, his chin resting on one hand, looks directly at us and seems serious, focused and relaxed. Even in this photograph, however, we would have doubts as to which voice in Whitman’s poetry belongs to that face, whether the patriotic or the elegiac or the skeptical or the hermetic. The task is an impossible one.

It seems to me that more than anything else, Whitman looks as he always has—old beyond his years. After 40 his looks do not change substantially. But he never looked older or wearier than in Thomas Eakins’ 1891 portrait taken a year before the poet’s death. The celebrated poet is not posing, not trying to impersonate himself; he is not the easygoing loafer he seemed in his younger years, nor is he simply “the good gray poet.” He doesn’t seem interested in the fact that his photograph is being taken. He looks pensive and distracted. In one hand he holds a cane that only underscores his frailty. The light from a single window illuminates part of his beard and the wolf-skin draped over the back of his rocker, but leaves most of his face in shadow, suggesting the encroachment of a deeper, more lasting dark.

There is nothing heroic in this portrait; it is a close, intimate look at an old man who seems tired, tired even of being Walt Whitman.

“There was a period early on in my career in which I tried to be Whitmanesque, in my own little way,” says Mark Strand, who offers his uniquely nuanced perspective on a 1891 photograph of one of the most influential poets in American history—the “father of free verse,” Walt Whitman. “Eventually, though, I realized his spirit wasn’t really available to me, and so I moved on.”

Strand, who served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1990 to 1991, is the author of 13 collections of poetry, including the 1998 Blizzard of One, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. A resident of New York City, his most recent collection, Almost Invisible, was reprinted, in September.

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