Big Loves: Jennifer Perrine on Whitman and Dickinson

Today’s Big Loves Contributor is Jennifer Perrine, author of In The Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011).

My Love Is Large—My Love Contains Multitudes

          I’m sure I first encountered Walt Whitman in high school. Sure because I remember poring over “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” in a literature class, trying to make sense of it. Sure because, when I stood on my desk along with my senior-year classmates and shouted “O Captain! My Captain” to send off our beloved English teacher at the end of the year, I knew we weren’t just referencing Dead Poets Society—we were channeling the great sweaty-toothed madman himself.

         But it wasn’t until I was nineteen, when my friend Stacey Waite gave me a copy of Whitman’s Selected Poems, that I accepted Walt’s invitation: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.” I stopped. I had spent days and nights searching for big love in romantic partners, in various religions, in dance clubs, in rambling wilderness—and I often found it. But it wasn’t until Walt came along, leaning and loafing, that I discovered the origin of all my poems: my big love for the world, in all of its grandeur, its blandness, its beauty, its cruelty.

I had always been an avid reader, but now, with Walt’s words in my hands, in my mouth, I felt compelled to read every poem aloud—no doubt my roommate grew weary of my ecstatic oratory. I had scribbled words in notebooks for years, but now I allowed my language to be more like my life—to be rangy, full of encounters with the world, to wander around on the page and not worry about where it would end up. To paraphrase Walt, poetry was larger, better than I thought, I did not know it held so much goodness.

And then I met Emily. I had known her for years, too. She showed up in those same literature classes, acknowledging Death’s kindness in stopping for her. I heard her fly buzz when she died and felt the funeral in her brain, but mostly she puzzled me—she intrigued me, but I felt unsteady, dizzy in her presence, and once Walt came along, it was easy to forget about her.

Many years later, though, my friend Rebecca Hazelton told me about an essay by Alice Fulton, who wrote about how many poets with clearly Dickinsonian leanings will cite Whitman as their primary influence instead. I began to look back over my own poems, and quite quickly, I discovered that Emily, too, was my big love—but she was my secret love, my love that dared not speak its name, not even to me. But she’s left her marks all over my poetry—her longing, her intimacy, her music, even her penchant for devising her own rules for punctuation.

Walt may have introduced me to the pleasures of poetry, but Emily showed me how to find that pleasure even in the most spare language, to exact lusciousness from “the pea within the pod,” to wrap sensuality in formal constraints and find delight in that restraint. She taught me, too, how to “tell it slant,” to let the speaker in my poems “tell all the truth” through voices with whom I felt an affinity, but who were decidedly not me, who were just askew of me. Those personae could “dazzle gradually” in a way I couldn’t—in a way Walt couldn’t, with his bold cosmic love—and I thank Emily for the years she stood by me, for the Wild Nights when she moored in me.

Walt and Emily, how different you were, how good you have been to me, how dearly I love you both.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Stacey Waite says:

    In all my Walt-ness, and in all your Emily-ness, I am grateful we are here writing in the world together, Jennifer. Multitudes indeed. What a beautiful little essay by a poet who sees herself clearly–all we can ask of one another.

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