Regular readers might recall, I won’t ever forget, that I went not so long ago to visit the composer Leon Kirchner, and he jokingly compared me to Walt Whitman. I hadn’t read Whitman’s verse since high school, and even at my hormonal heights, penning maudlin teen poetry by the rhyming bushel, I found him over the top.
But so it happened that, a week ago, coming back from a long day of editing the “Concord” Sonata, I stopped in Grand Central Station—where Ives must have come and gone many times—and bought myself a pretty copy of Leaves of Grass. I started reading it in the subway with blurry eyes and a brain filled with dissonance, and it didn’t seem over the top at all. It seemed like a clear voice I had been missing, which Leon’s quip had brought back into my life. I started reading bits to my friends over the phone. And so it happened also that I started carrying it around with me, wherever I went … and it was in my bag this morning, slung over my shoulder, as I was walking down 9th Avenue, and clicked on my iPhone, and learned that Leon was dead.
Opening the book to a random page on 57th street, I found:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself;
I am large …. I contain multitudes.
I concentrate towards them that are nigh … I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me … he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed … I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air …. I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you
Some difficulty. Am back at home, looking at a giant writing project on the Goldberg Variations which I am supposed to finish, f&*(). How I wish I could ask Leon about them right now.
The answer would take longer than the piece, it would ramble, and you would hardly know what it was or what it meant, it would be good health to you nevertheless …. its important meanings would stop some where waiting for you to find them. You planted so many seeds in my brain, Leon, you lion, the last of which I guess was Whitman; another was the endlessly recombining quest and beautiful urge of your music; another crucial one was your faith in me; I’ll wait for the others (I’m sure there are others) to grow; I miss you.