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Song Of Himself

June 13, 2007

Performer John O'Keefe breathes new life into the work of a dead poet

In his 1955 poem "A Supermarket in California," Allen Ginsberg fantasizes about going on a nocturnal rampage around a grocery store with Walt Whitman. As the two poets sniff artichokes, poke at frozen peas, and eye up the stock boys, the world takes on surreal, frightening proportions. With its ghoulish, Cabbage Patch Kid-like images of "wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!" the florescent-light-tinted urban landscape bares scant resemblance to the 20th-century writer's conception of the 19th-century writer's universe. "Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher," the Beat leader asks as his poem draws to a close. "What America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?"

The answer to Ginsberg's question, at least as John O'Keefe might frame it, is simple: Despite what Ginsberg thinks, Whitman's America is this America. For the Bay Area-based playwright/solo performer, the preoccupations of Whitman's time are no different to those of our own. "Nothing has really changed since he wrote this poem," says O'Keefe, in his introduction to his performance of Whitman's famous 1855 epic "Song of Myself." "He seems to have experiences similar to ours."

With his penchant for communing with blades of grass and perpetual state of wonder at such commonplace things such as soil and belching, Whitman seems more like a harmless lunatic from an ancient mythical country than someone who might have something important to say to modern audiences. To those of us who staggered our way through the spiraling, euphoric verses of Leaves of Grass in high school, the poet's words seem hopelessly naïve and idealistic. It's easiest to lump him in with all those other writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. What little currency the poet had by the late 20th century promptly evaporated when Peter Weir turned him into a schoolboy mascot in the 1989 movie Dead Poet's Society.

But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming Whitman, it's O'Keefe. For a quarter of an hour or so before launching into his abbreviated, 45-minute-long version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — the performer chats to the audience about his rationale for excavating one of the American literary canon's most hackneyed works. Whitman told the truth, O'Keefe explains, sporting an untucked shirt, slacks, and — appropriately — a pair of black loafers. He was the "original gangster" — a writer who changed the face of modern literature with his then revolutionary ideas about the body, sex, slavery, and gender equality. Without Uncle Walt, we're told, there would have been no Beats. And the likes of Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Neruda, and Lorca would have had to look elsewhere for inspiration.

O'Keefe's introductory speech isn't enough on its own to transform Whitman's words from winsome doggerel on a yellowing page to lucid, urgent thought. It's only when the lights go down and the performer begins reciting the poem that the alchemic process begins. For O'Keefe's Song of Myself is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line — "I celebrate myself!" — to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, both major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe.

Thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to recognize Whitman's many-mooded landscape. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone running to catch the bus or fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Whitman loves to pack his poems with overabundant lists of examples and O'Keefe makes much of these catalogues, using them to stress the pace of life. "The fare-collector goes through the train — the floormen are laying the floor — the tinners are tinning the roof — the masons are calling for mortar," he intones, pitching each phrase slightly higher than the last to increase the intensity of the moment. Propelled by the density of the content, the poem's atmosphere sometimes borders on frenzy. At these points, O'Keefe's eyes grow wide, he sweats profusely, and practically foams at the mouth. "To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow, all are written to me, and I must get what the writing means," he barks maniacally, like a man possessed.

Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is quieter and more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. On occasion, the performer even manages to stop time. Lounging on the floor on his forearm near the start of the poem with one leg bent and the other extended, he looks like the iconic image of Nijinsky laconically posing in a scene from the ballet L'après-midi d'un Faune. His voice becomes a velveteen purr and we can almost smell the grass and feel the warmth of the air. At these times, Whitman seems like he's right there in the room with us.

Yet a sense of proximity to the poet doesn't always make his poem resonate with us. O'Keefe's reading of "Song of Myself" sometimes alienates more than attracts. Take the poem's famous "barbaric yawp" for instance, which in O'Keefe's rendition, sounds less like a yawp than a lapdog's yap. Similarly, the schizophrenic way in which Whitman's stream-of-consciousness style darts erratically between subjects and tones is easier to digest while reading privately than listening to someone recite the lines out loud. O'Keefe has made sensitive cuts to the lengthy work, yet its inherent choppiness and sudden temperature changes occasionally impede the flow of the performance.

Everyone thinks they know Whitman. But O'Keefe's Song of Myself makes Uncle Walt's ideas feel rich and strange once again. The lights slowly go down on the performer as he utters his last words, but they continue to shine brightly on the poet. If you want to see Whitman again, don't look for him under your boot-soles. Try the Marsh instead. Alternatively, check out the produce aisle of your local supermarket after 9 p.m.



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