Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Alex Visalo Rainers
A New Perspective on Homosexual Love and Violence:
Walt Whitman's “I Dreamed in a Dream” and the Sacred Band of Thebes
When Walt Whitman said “I contain multitudes,” it was easy for us to let ourselves drift into the arms of his work. When Whitman spoke of beautiful dreams, we followed along to marvel at his visions. Whitman, in his poetic excellence and American lit syllabus fame, is nothing if not easy to love. But I would argue that it is in the very small crevices of his poetry that we truly find ourselves reflected: in the specific, rather than the universal.
As a queer poet, it is “Calamus” that stands out to me as the section of Leaves of Grass that reflects my experience the most. Whitman's poem "I Dreamed in a Dream" speaks to me the most, not only as a queer subject but also as a Greek person with a complicated relationship with history and violence. In the poem, he speaks of the ancient Greek city of Thebes. There existed "The Sacred Band of Thebes,” a small army of allegedly impossible strength that consisted of 300 men or 150 homosexual couples. This is likely what Whitman was referring to when he wrote that "[n]othing was greater there than the quality of robust love" (4-5). In this romanticized version of Thebes, queer love was what made the community "invincible to the attacks of the whole rest of the earth" (1-2).
As I was tracing this connection, I discovered Panagiotis Stamatakis' sketches of the skeletons of these men, which were drawn when their grave was briefly opened in 1880 (Romm 11). Something about the almost childish doodles, combined with Whitman's dream of the city, gave me the ache of inspiration for my project. What does it mean for queer people, both Greek and otherwise, that a representation of these men exists? And who does this representation actually reflect? These are the main questions I am attempting to answer through my work.
As a queer transmasculine Greek, I fit the demographic seen in these portrayals. I am, in the simplest of terms, a man who loves men and thus I should have no trouble situating myself next to Whitman or my Theban ancestors. Yet, there are two obstacles to this identification: I am transgender, and I do not believe in the romanticization of war. I am attempting to resolve the first obstacle by running into it head-first; to replicate the sketches of the skeletons with my own naked body. On the one hand, this highlights resilience. On the other, the choice to censor the parts of my body that are least accepted as male highlights the ways in which I have to conform to the cisnormative standards of masculinity.
The second obstacle is more complicated. Being transmasculine, I will likely not be drafted, and thus one could suggest that I am commenting on an experience that is not mine for the taking. But violence is all pervasive in the world that I, too, occupy. Violence is such an unquestioned and celebrated part of manhood that even Whitman dreams of a world where the violence would be inflicted by the queer subjects toward the rest of the world. I can understand his thought process. I, too, hold rage inside of me. And having been taught that violence is synonymous with manhood, it is only natural to want to turn to this violence when your very manhood is being questioned because of the way you love. However, I do not believe that the past that we cherish and the dreams that we dream should be implicated with violence. I do not believe that one man's love for another is a weapon to wield against our enemies. I believe in hoping for a future where love does not turn more held hands into fists. I think we should dream bigger.
Romm, James. The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom. Scribner, 2021.
Whitman, Walt. "I Dreamed in a Dream." Leaves of Grass (1867) – The Walt Whitman Archive, whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1867/poems/52. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
---. “Calamus.” Leaves of Grass (1860-1861) – The Walt Whitman Archive, whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1860/clusters/76. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
Contributor Bio: Alex Visalo Rainers