Speak, Memory

If it’s difficult at all to think of what to memorialize this Memorial Day, then start with Walt Whitman – today is the poet’s birthday.  The holiday began as Decoration Day, specifically to honor the Union dead in the American Civil War.  Whitman, who tended to so many wounded and dying soldiers, and created an essential American voice, is the ideal place to start.  And as the scales of DADT may actually be falling away from institutional eyes, it’s worth noting that Whitman was gay and a great patriot, a man on the side of the Republic against treason, a man on the side of American values against the right to forcibly enslave human beings because of the color of their skin.

Whitman also understood the idea of liberty far better than the so-called ‘libertarians’ and ‘conservatives’ who plague us in this country, people whose idea of liberty extends just to the dollar and no farther.  Liberty is this unpublished poem:

To What You Said (Whitman/Bernstein, sung by Thomas Hampson with Craig Rutenberg)

To what you said, passionately clasping my hand, this is my answer:
Though you have strayed hither, for my sake, you can never belong to me,
Nor I to you,
Behold the customary loves and friendships, the cold guards
I am that rough and simple person
I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting,
And I am one who is kissed in return,
I introduce that new American salute
Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors –
What are they to me?
What to these young men that travel with me?

What are they to me?  Indeed, that is the essential question of liberty.  Money, the means to command others, to condemn anything that is different than me, to own other human beings, these things are nothing for anyone who believes in liberty, but those received models of the parlor are all to those who are cramped and choked in morals and values, to those who grasp only at material and secular power (and yes, wielding religion as propaganda in service to political power is as secular a goal there is).

So on this day, to truly honor memory, exercise liberty.  Ask, what are these things to me?  And if you want to listen to this idea of memory, then Charles Ives, another great and patriotic American who cared for his fellow citizens and gave them, those far less able and fortunate them him, the means to enjoy the reward of a lifetime of hard work (or what those opposed to liberty would call a socialist), has prepared a piece of music for you:


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.