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The world celebrates Whitman Poet: America's most famous poet is popular everywhere from China to the White House.

March 12, 1998|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

"The way some of the media is treating Whitman is absurd," said J.D. McClatchy, poet-critic and editor of the Yale Review. "It's like those people who take a few lines from 'Song of Songs' and say the Bible is smutty. Whitman's poetry is frank about sexuality, but the poetry is about much, much more than sex."

Although scandalous by 19th century standards, sex in Whitman may seem tame today. There are no four-letter words and no explicit references to genitalia or detailed descriptions of sexual acts.

Still, to the amorous minded, the lyricism and suggestiveness of his poetry inspires passion.

"When I was 17 or 18, I gave my girlfriend 'Leaves of Grass,' in hopes it would help me seduce her," said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who teaches at the University of California, Davis. "Whitman speaks out for the joyous possibilities of physicality, of acceptance of ourselves as natural beings."

Even before the issue of the gift surfaced, Clinton was on record as a Whitman enthusiast.

Homoeroticism

At a gay-rights dinner in November, Clinton quoted from one of the "Calamus" poems, a collection known for homoerotic references.

Illustrated volumes of the poems are often sold as gifts in bookstores with gay clienteles.

Clinton's selection that night was from "Song of the Exposition": "And thou America,

"Thy offspring towering o'er so high, yet higher thee above all towering.

"With Victory on thy left, and at thy right hand Law;

"Thou Union holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all,

"Thee, ever thee, I sing."

Fittingly perhaps, Whitman was fascinated with presidents and the presidency. He covered presidential campaigns and politicking as a newspaperman, mentioned the presidency in "Leaves of Grass" and wrote four elegies on the assassination of Lincoln.

Like some modern politicians, Whitman rewrote his own biography to fit the moment, shading some incidents, fabricating others (like the whopper about fathering six children by a brothel madam in New Orleans). A famous promotional picture shows Whitman with a butterfly on his finger; the butterfly, it turned out, was cardboard.

Whitman's private life and alleged sexual adventures were much debated and discussed during his life and considered quite scandalous.

Still, a century of snooping by biographers, critics and newspaper reporters has failed to conclusively confirm a single instance of coital contact, and there are scholars who now suggest that he may have been, erotically speaking, all talk.

Nonetheless, his fans are adamant that Whitman's poetry will be in demand long after the tale of Clinton and Lewinsky has faded.

"Whitman will do just fine," said Iowa professor Folsom. "He'll be the only one to come out of this scandal with his reputation untarnished."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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