I too am not a bit tamed . . . . I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Walt Whitman must have embraced a certain modern inevitability: that his beloved Poets to Come would translate their visions into new media, whatever it takes, and whenever. In his own era, Whitman hacked publishing technology and industry, without waiting. But in “Song of Myself,” he declares himself “untranslatable.” And if “Song of Myself” is really the song of everybody, we too are untranslatable.
Whitman witnessed photography transforming the ways people could consume ideas, and there too, he hacked it, becoming the most-photographed writer of his century. About his portraits, he famously reflected, “I meet new Walt Whitmans every day” and “I don’t know which Walt Whitman I am.”
During his lifetime, he must have spun at least one zoetrope too. What did he think of Poets to Come, after peeking into that prophetic carousel of moving pictures? We know that he was a frequent patron of opera and theatre, too. He must have known what could happen.
Within the same year Whitman died, Thomas Edison finished his kinetoscope that could spool photos into motion, finally for more than just one spin. Suddenly, motion pictures could last for as long as a poem. Only a couple of years prior, Edison had arranged for a recording of Whitman’s own voice, that you can hear in my poetry film America among many other ways. These new technologies began to document things. But they did not really translate the essence of whatever, and whomever, they reproduced — as Whitman proscribed.
So, Whitman’s death was year zero of this new medium that today dominates, for better and worse, our cultural priorities. It’s a weapon that translates things wrong, but also, a tool that artists use in good faith to translate the untranslatable. For Walt Whitman’s bicentennial year, it felt right to do a round-up: going forth to show every citation to the poet found in film and television (now the same thing), from its invention, to the present — from Manhatta and Intolerance, to Breaking Bad and Dead Poet’s Society, combined into a recently matured documentary fair use genre called “video essay.”
What might interest you most, is to ask what these filmmakers wanted out of Whitman, and when. In the broadest sense, the arc shifted: mysticism of unknown shores; then national reflection; then Tweeted self-realization. Namely, American cultural history? With all these exploits assembled into one place, you’re in the best position to draw conclusions, or leave them be, or a little of both. But there’s still that second line in the top quote, that “barbarous yawp,” cited memorably in Dead Poets Society (when you click the image at right, you’ll play just that section from the half-hour video essay fronting this site).
More than every other instance put together, that Peter Weir/Tom Schulman film has probably been the world’s biggest entry point to Walt Whitman, since its late ’80s creation: in those end times of celebrated affluence, when a barbarous yawp was the only hope for rich kids at a boarding school to maybe break free. In this scene, you can preserve your misgivings (like mine) about the film’s authenticity and relevance, yet still be moved by its depiction of dam-bursting creative epiphany. A portrait of “Uncle Walt” oversees the classroom scene, and I expect that under his lasting watch, Whitman on Film has got a long future ahead. For now, we’re current up to his bicentennial.
— H. Paul Moon, filmmaker (essay originally published October 28, 2019 in North American Review)