There’s a story poets like to tell, or a shaggy dog joke, that Whitman, when he was young, was visited by a man from the future. This was before he’d written “Song of Myself,” but the person telling the story is never sure how long before. The man who comes from the future tells Whitman he’s read everything by him, he tells Whitman that he doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to be the father of American poetry, maybe even the father of America itself. He tells him never to fear if he seems about to contradict himself, never to stop, never to second-guess, he tells Walt Whitman that he came from the future, and that it was nothing but cities moving forever outward, and there were roads to everywhere, and sometimes you had to cry, but sometimes you had to yell, and sometimes you just had to hit one of those roads—or all of those roads—without a backward glance, the future, Walt, it’s really not so different from what you’ve seen already. And at this point in the story, or the joke, whoever’s listening asks for the name, who was the man from the future that visited Walt Whitman. And the person telling the story says, Ginsberg, but of course someone else who’s listening will interject and say, no, no, it was Kerouac, and somebody else will say, you’re all wrong, it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and someone might timidly suggest that it was Gary Snyder, that Snyder was the man from the future that visited Walt Whitman, and if anyone overhears him they’ll say, Snyder? You idiot, who asked you?, and the person who was telling the story to begin with will say, it could have been Kerouac, yes, or it could have been Ferlinghetti, sure, or it could have even been Burroughs, but the fact is that it was Ginsberg who traveled back in time to pay a visit to Walt Whitman. And how do we know this? Because, he’ll say, because Allen Ginsberg also received a visit from a man from the future, before he went back to meet Whitman, before he wrote “Howl,” or “A Supermarket in California,” a man from the future came to see him. And everyone wants to know who Ginsberg’s man from the future was, what was his name, and the person telling the story, which is really just a shaggy dog joke, says, well, no one’s quite sure. But common sense dictates that his initials were THC. And this is the part where everyone groans, and shakes their heads, and maybe if it’s really late, and everyone’s really smashed, someone pours the rest of his drink on the person who told the story, the dummy who told the joke, this spinner of bullshit, this waster of time. And then everyone forgets the story, or the joke, until the next time someone tells it, only they’ll change the names, this time it might be a joke about two men from the future who conned everyone into thinking they were just two well-read modern savants named T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Or it might be a story about how Cervantes was visited by Borges, who was visited by Cortazar, who he received graciously and granted a tour of his library, and then was visited again later by Isabel Allende, in whose face he shut the door. Or it might be two men stranded on an island, and their names are Swift and Defoe. Everyone knows Carlos Castaneda was never visited by anything, no one tells stories about him. The thing about the story, or the joke, about Whitman and Ginsberg, when it’s told by an American poet, is that whoever’s telling it, when they tell the part about the man from the future that visited Allen Ginsberg, they’re really intimating or suggesting that maybe they were that man, or will be that man, but it just hasn’t happened yet, they haven’t discovered the secrets of time travel yet, or maybe it has happened already, but it happened in a fugue state and they don’t remember a bit of it. All they’re telling is a stupid joke, but there’s a secret kind of longing behind the joke, a longing to be larger than life, or larger than death, to touch the stature of Whitman or Ginsberg, to gain admission to the elite canon of poetry, the immortals, and that’s why it’s better not to talk about Whitman or Ginsberg, or even T.S. Eliot. Ezra Pound’s usually all right to talk about, although it’s usually better to talk about something else entirely, you know, the sky in California, the sky in New Mexico, the shapes in the clouds or the dust, the roads that will take you far away if you want to go far away, if you need to cry, or if you want to yell, or rest your eyes, or if the road finds you back in the city, and you find that it’s gotten bigger, but you’re not surprised because it was always getting bigger, and there are always other things to talk about, better things to talk about, more useful things to talk about until the café is closed, just not the poets and their poems that have moved you, frozen you stiff.
From “The Game of Surrounding”
art by Thomas Huston