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“Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” by Walt Whitman

September 27, 2010

Nor will this poem do good only, it will do just as much evil, perhaps more.

This is Banned Books Week, and even though lists like these are nearly all fiction and children’s books*, you’re getting a poem from a banned book each day here at The Feed.

* This can’t possibly mean that, when it comes to poems, the world is happily conforming to my favorite remark on the matter (from Claire Booth Luce, on a t-shirt I had in college): Censorship, like charity, should begin in the home, but, unlike charity, it should end there. Nope, it just means most people don’t read many poems.  If they did, they’d find plenty to censor.

Today’s poem first appeared in Whitman’s 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.  This was a few years before he lost a government job in 1865 because the Secretary of the Interior found his book to be a violation of “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization.” And it was a couple of decades before Boston’s DA prevented the 1881 edition from being published in that city because it fell “within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature.”

Whitman was no dummy. He anticipated that not every reader would also be, bluntly, a Whitman-lover. “Whoever You Are Holding Me…” might not be one of the poems that got him fired and his book banned (though, especially in the company of some of those others, it is sexy and/or disturbing enough!).  But it is a poem that offers an alternative to misunderstanding and offense, or to giving oneself over entirely to being touched by poet and book:  Put me down and depart on your way.  Release me and depart on your way.

I read “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” from Leaves of Grass (Bantam Classics, 1990).  The quotes from the Seretary of the Interior and the Boston DA are from Justin Kaplan’s introduction to this edition.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 9:49 am

    I don’t mean to change gears from this post, but when I hear “Walt Whitman”, I think of Frank Lloyd Wright. Here are two excerpts that you may find interesting.

    “This review is from: The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (DVD):
    This 75 minute video with the help of the Arts Council of Great Britain presents many intimate photographs of many of Wright’s homes and projects. This video does not focus on the controversy surrounding FLW’s life, but explores in great detail the work of the man and those who influenced him, including his Welsh family and roots and Walt Whitman.”

    (about Wright by Jeffery St. Clair)
    “Wright was a utopian, in the grand romantic tradition. He was grounded in Rousseau and often let slip that his favorite poets were Walt Whitman and the dreamy Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Along with fellow poet (and snitch) Robert Southey, Coleridge cooked up an idea for a utopian community in western Pennsylvania they called, somewhat clumsily for two poets capable of stunning lyricism, the Pantisocracy.”

  2. September 29, 2010 10:15 am

    Good choice!
    Thanks for sharing this.

    -Bear

  3. September 29, 2010 10:18 am

    ….and what on earth would be the reason for banning Walt Whitman?!?

    • September 29, 2010 4:03 pm

      Wow, I’m no Whitman expert or 19th century legal expert…but I suppose the main answer has to be the frankness with which he wrote about the body and sex and homosexual sex.

      The confidence and unashamed fearlessness and expansiveness of language that we admire in his best known poems, he brought all that to those topics as well. And you can imagine that put him at odds with plenty of readers, including civic groups like this one in Boston.

      Anyone want to chime in with more/better info? I’m curious, too.

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