Being Walt Whitman

He hobbled across the stage, cane in hand, floppy hat atop his head, gray beard descending from his chin, and found his way through disheveled piles of books spread across a tiny old desk and chair.

“From my point of view, I am in a pretty boggy condition indeed,” the man said, noting his abilities to write, read, work, laugh, cry and “be (himself) in most ways” were fortunately still intact.

His ability to look back and tell his story was too. In this way, actor Stephen Collins introduced the College to Walt Whitman Thursday morning in Kendall Hall, portraying the poet reflecting on his life just before his 70th birthday celebration.

His message, given at the end of the performance, called “Unlaunch’d Voices,” was clear: “We must work at finding beauty in this life,” he said. “We must be grateful. We must love the earth and the air and the animals. Despise riches.”

Michael Robertson, professor of English and co-director of the Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” Sesquicentennial Symposium, introduced Collins’ performance by asking the audience to time-travel to 1889.

“In that year, there were living only two great poets of the English language,” he said, noting that one lived in England, going by the name of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and living in wealth at his London mansion and Surrey country home.

The other, Robertson said, was Whitman, who could be found “living on a poor, working-class street in the grimy industrial city of Camden.”

Collins’ performance also involved some time traveling, as he removed his jacket, vest and hat, and threw down his cane when portraying Whitman in his younger years. He donned them again toward the end of the performance to revert back to the 70-year-old crippled man.

David Blake, associate professor of English and the other co-director of the symposium, said he particularly enjoyed seeing Collins change between “being the robust young poet of the 1855 Leaves of Grass and the old, enfeebled man looking back upon his career.”

Saying things like, “I asked my soul to loaf with me on the grass,” Collins recited and paraphrased lines from “Song of Myself,” “Children of Adam” and other poems, capturing Whitman’s word choice and use of the English language so much that it seemed Whitman really could have said every line, verbatim.

He explained why Whitman began writing poetry – “It occurred to me that America had yet to reach its own voice,” he said. “I took to the open air and nature and wrote – wrote, wrote, wrote.”

Collins was upfront about the opposition Whitman faced, citing reviews that he rotted “like a pig,” was a donkey as well as “a heterogeneous mix of bombast, egotism, vulgarity and none” and wrote “a mass of stupid filth.”

He credited Ralph Waldo Emerson as Whitman’s inspiration to continue writing, as he alone had written him with praise after the first edition of Leaves of Grass was released. “This letter electrified me,” Collins said.

He also confronted those who would have liked to censor Whitman. “In these poems, I wanted to celebrate the human body,” he said, referring to Whitman’s “Children of Adam.” To this, Collins spoke out against censorship, saying, “evil is always evil.”

Collins even faced claims that Whitman was egotistical. “I do not understand how anything can be more wonderful than myself,” he said, before asking, “Do I use ‘I’ too often?” The audience laughed in response.

“I, I, I” he retorted. “This isn’t egotism purely. I was content for a while to dismiss everything and to dote on myself,” he admitted, noting that the Civil War changed all of that with his efforts to help sick and wounded victims.

“I thought (the performance) was tremendous,” Bob Anderson, director of Liberal Learning, said. “I think his telling us to re-examine everything we’ve learned is at the heart of what we’re about here.”

Lindsay Knight, junior English major, said that though she hadn’t read Whitman since high school and knew little about him, seeing Collins’ performance made her want to study him more. “He did a great job at making Walt Whitman accessible,” she said.

Collins was inspired to do a one-man show of a poet after seeing a one-man show of Henry David Thoreau. “I was very moved and mesmerized,” he said.

While working as a massage therapist, he had a client who suggested Whitman for his subject. Collins started reading his poetry and “just kind of fell in love with it,” he said. “It was kind of a serendipitous thing.”

He collaborated on the project with director Michael Kearny for nine months, and has been performing “Unlaunch’d Voices” since its January 1998 debut.

Though currently working on a one-man show about Robert Frost, he said he still loves playing Whitman and especially enjoyed doing it for the audience in Kendall Hall Thursday morning. “When there’s an audience like there was today,” he said, “you just feed off that energy.”