Poetic Licentiousness

What does the president see in Leaves of Grass?


You can't judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a man by the books he gives to his, er, inamoratas? That's a question raised by accounts that one of the gifts President Clinton gave to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. As Newsweek reported, Clinton had "also happened to give Hillary [a copy] when they were courting."

Such consistency over the decades is hardly surprising: Seduction is a trial-and-error process, and smooth operators tend to stick with what works. (Casanovas also possess the ability to make the object of their affections believe she is being given intensely, uniquely individual attention–which explains why, in some accounts, the first lady burst into tears upon hearing the news that Bill had given another the same book.)

Anyone familiar with Leaves of Grass can understand why the president might deploy it in his romantic intrigues. An undeniably great work of literature, Whitman's poem celebrating "the procreant urge of the world," "unspeakable passionate love," and "blind loving wrestling touch" simultaneously exudes a touch of class and raw sex appeal. Like Ravel's Bolero and Botticelli's Birth of Venus, it has long been a high-end aphrodisiac.

Serious artistic merit and redeeming social value aside, passages such as, "[Y]ou settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me, / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your / tongue to my bare-stript heart, / And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet," whisper to prurient interests. (Not for nothing was an 1881 edition banned). Even, or perhaps especially, when the meaning is opaque–"Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude; / How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?"–smutty inferences are nearly irresistible.

Certainly, knowing of the president's longstanding fondness for Leaves of Grass adds a new dimension to the poem, which takes the form of "journeys through the states," starting from Whitman's birthplace in Long Island and fanning out throughout the rest of the country. Although first published in 1855, Leaves of Grass seems every bit as much a roman à clef as Primary Colors.

Indeed, it's hard not to picture Clinton when reading lines such as, "Daughter of the lands did you wait for your poet? / Did you wait for one with a flowing mouth and indicative hand?" and "I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy, / To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can / stand." Or this: "Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded, / I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no, /And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot / be shaken away." Even the narrator's self-description–"Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding"–calls to mind the current commander-in-chief.

But the significance of Clinton's choice in gifts goes beyond corroborating apparent presidential priapism. The correspondences hold up in more political terms, too.

The narrator empathizes with people in a way that provocatively anticipates Clinton's famous evocation of feeling our pain: "Agonies are one of my changes of garments, / I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become / the wounded person." The poem's expansive and insistent gestures toward all people–"Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, / A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, / Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest"–similarly seem torn from Clinton speeches. And the signature line, "Do I contradict? / Very well then I contradict myself," pretty fairly sums up the president's modus operandi, whether the topic is gays in the military or conflicting accounts of his relationship with chanteuse and former Arkansas state employee Gennifer Flowers.

A joyous, exuberant poem, Leaves of Grass depicts the country as a blur of energy and activity, a sort of perpetual, all-inclusive orgy among citizens. It famously hears "America singing, the varied carols" of workmen and "The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, / or of the girl sewing or washing, / Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, / The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, / Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs."

There's work to be done, but also ample time for "a few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms." It's a world filled with naked bodies, hugging bodies, and bodies rubbing up against one another. Democracy is itself seen in erotic terms, and the narrator is constantly becoming one with the body politic: "I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and / naked, / I am mad for it to be in contact with me."

Of course, it's one thing for a poet to envision himself having socio-sexual intercourse with the American people. When Whitman writes, "In me the caresser of life wherever moving, backward as well as / forward sluing, / To niches aside and junior bending, not a person or object missing, / Absorbing all to myself," it is a thrilling act of poetic and political solidarity. When an elected official evinces a similar mindset, it becomes downright disturbing, and suggests a final parallel with Leaves of Grass's White House disseminator.

As Paula Jones or Kathleen Willey might ask, at what point does a proposition or an embrace become a kind of stranglehold, a means of control and coercion, rather than a consensual coupling? Whitman himself hints at the dark, dystopic potential in his conception of America, where romance can turn closer to rape: "On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs, / Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip, / Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial, / Depriving me of my best as for a purpose, / Unbuttoning my clothes."

While such a passage calls to mind Jones's and Willey's stories of unwanted Clintonian misconduct, it is also reminiscent of such public policy initiatives as the failed national health care system (from which no one would have been allowed to opt out) and the ongoing "dialogue" on race (which got off to an inauspicious start when the president tried to bully dissenters into line). Here, too, perhaps, Leaves of Grass is a gift that says more than intended: "Resist / much, obey little, / Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, / Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever after- / ward resumes its liberty."