Walt Whitman at the strip club: The legendary poet on love, lust and "midnight orgies"

Whitman understood something that America often tries to suppress: "Sex is the root of it all"

Published April 12, 2015 7:00PM (EDT)

  (Wikimedia/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1448759p1.html'>LoloStock</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Wikimedia/LoloStock via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from “In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America From Itself”

In the late 1850s, Walt Whitman wrote a series of poems celebrating what he called “manly love,” the love men had for other men. Whitman included the poems in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass under the heading “Calamus,” a plant with a suggestive, phallic-shaped flowering spike growing out of it. As I discuss in the next chapter, the exact nature of this manly love—essentially, whether it involved genitals or not—remains very much unsettled. In any case, Whitman wanted a series of poems that would counterbalance the “Calamus” ones. Whereas “Calamus” would celebrate the love of men for men, these new poems would celebrate the erotic love between men and women. The poems, Whitman imagined, would be “full of animal fire, tender, burning,—the tremulous ache, delicious, yet such torment. The swelling elate and vehement, that will not be denied.” To assemble the series, which he eventually called “Children of Adam,” Whitman gathered three poems from the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass, including the justly famous “I Sing the Body Electric” and the perennially controversial “A Woman Waits for Me,” and wrote another dozen shorter poems.

Among these shorter lyrics is the eighth poem in the series, later given the title “Native Moments.” By “native,” Whitman means a couple of things: inborn or innate, but also simple, natural, without affectation—possibly even uncivilized. To put it simply, he is talking about moments of overwhelming sexual desire, which, he believes, are native (instinctual) to us and native (almost crude) in and of themselves. Either way, these moments cannot and should not be denied. Whitman writes:

Native moments! when you come upon me—Ah you are here now! Give me now libidinous joys only! Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank! To-day, I go consort with nature’s darlings—to-night too, I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men, I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers, The echoes ring with our indecent calls, I take for my love some prostitute—I pick out some low person for my dearest friend, He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate—he shall be one condemned by others for deeds done; I will play a part no longer—Why should I exile myself from my companions? O you shunned persons! I at least do not shun you, I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet, I will be more to you than t...

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