Thursday, January 24, 2008

Walt Whitman Uncensored! His early Gay experience and the Poem through which it sang through him: "Once I pass'd Through A Populous City"


In 1848, at age 29, Walt Whitman visited New Orleans. There he met a guy, and they hooked up big-time.

(This is a great picture of Walt at age 37, that will link you to the wikipedia entry for him.)

When Walt looked back on his New Orleans passion, he penned a poem that was branded "obscene" when it was published. But when it was published, it hid the truth.

In 1925 the original hand-written manuscript of "Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City" was discovered, showing the poet had changed the gender before the poem was published.

Here then, is the original version, singing of Gay love, from 160 years ago...


ONCE I PASSED THROUGH A POPULOUS CITY

by Walt Whitman


Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met
there who detain'd me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together--all else has long
been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.



Oh, now (and how!) the poem speaks to me. How amazing, changing just those 8 letters makes the poem true. Here's the version that was originally published, with the changes in red:

ONCE I PASSED THROUGH A POPULOUS CITY

by Walt Whitman


Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a
[wo]man I casually met
there who detain'd me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together--all else has long
been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that
[wo]man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again
[s]he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see
him [her] close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

8 letters. How humble, and sad, that such self-censorship existed back then.
And in my very unscientific survey of the first 10 websites I found that had the text of the poem, every one had the "woman" version and not a single one of them mentioned how the poem was originally written! So it's a censorship that shadows this poem to today!

This censorship threatens the truth of queer love in so many realms - think of all those Hollywood films where the "gay" story has been sanitized for our "protection." Uh, I'd start a list of movies adapted from books where the book had queer content, but the movie version didn't... but it would take me all day...

And it's not just the movies - I know for me, some of my earlier writing attempts were definitely a dalliance with shifting gender, and looking back on it, I'm not proud of it, and really, it hampered my writing by not letting me connect with my truth...


But to throw off those shackles, to toss off those 8 letters, to write truly from our hearts - ahhh, What freedom. What joy. What inspiration: to find the truth, and let it sing through us!

Let the truth sing through you.

Namaste,

Lee



The information on the discovery of the original version of "Once I pass'd Through A Populous City" was on page 135 of "My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries"

And I found the poem (the censored "woman" version) on pg. 82 of "Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman" edited by James E. Miller, Jr.



4 comments:

markprobst said...

It is so true about Hollywood's censorship of gay characters when adapting literary works. It appears the movie industry was much more skittish regarding homosexuality than the literary crowd. Vito Russo's book "The Celluloid Closet" is a great source for all the characters that were de-gayed for their movie roles. Some examples are "The Lost Weekend" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
- Mark R. Probst

Johnny said...

Great story and investigative job Lee. I love when the past becomes alive like this!

Rita said...

Wow, wow. The poem is so much stronger in its original. The passion and the feeling of it . . .

I wonder why that is?

Is it because it's so much more provocative (to me) to hear a strong poem about a man and a man (when normally I'm not much for romantic poems, otherwise)?

Is it because I'm a straight woman and just like hearing about "him" and "he," so I can project myself into the poem?

But I wouldn't do that. This is Walt Whitman, whose presence and voice are too strong and wonderful for that.

Bravo for this post, Lee!

Bryan said...

Wow Lee - I just came upon this post moments after I emailed you the link to my poem which opens with a reference to Whitman's gender-censorship/editing.

I am in the process of reading all of Whitman's poems and prose. I am about halfway through and there are those references that survived... Poetically speaking, Whitman is the God I want to be. Oh, to have had a conversation with him!

I highly recommend his prose book, "Specimen Days." It's almost like journal entries... it focuses on his time spent volunteering in military hospitals during the Civil War. He bleeds love for these young men on so many levels. "Specimen Days" might be worthy of a spot on your blog, but I'll leave that for you to decide, oh Guru of Gay Lit!