In college, after I gave up modeling myself on Bob Dylan (I had trouble with his conversion to Christianity) and then on Genet (I just wasn’t French enough), I decided to try to become as much as possible like Walt Whitman. What propelled me was not the beauty of Whitman’s language (I was an undergraduate English major; I was drowning in the beautiful language of the dead) but the following passage, which I read late one night in my dormitory room as Pink Floyd seeped through the wall from the room next to mine:
Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here alone together?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms. . . .
Never before had a writer leaped off the page and touched me like that: directly, personally, erotically. It was my first experience of literature’s ability to telescope time—to forcefully remind the living that the no-longer-living were not only once as alive as we are now but were capable of imagining us, and a future with us in it, as vividly as we imagine them in the past. If it didn’t quite tear a hole in the fabric of mortality, it stretched it a considerable distance.
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