Derek Mong: “Walt Whitman’s iPad”

There will come a time when I fall out of favor with the American marketing machine. My “likes” will have stabilized, even calcified, and my opinions will slump into the armchair of middle age. I will become unswayable and thus unsellable, and would—were I plied with the latest cellular doo-dad—shoo the damn thing from my front lawn. But the ad men will know of my disinterest before I do. One day their targeted commercials will dissolve into white noise, retuned for the young couple who bought the house down the street. I look forward to that moment more than I ought to and practice a Ludditism that will speed it along. Today, however, is a day like any other. Today is the day I hear the late Robin Williams read Walt Whitman while some iPad users chase tornadoes, photograph waterfalls, and make art. It is the latest and slickest ad from Apple, their pitch for the new iPad Air (retail: $499), and I can’t turn away.

view the ad at Time magazine

click through to view the ad at Time magazine

Why? Perhaps because it triggers my nostalgia. Perhaps because having recognized that voice as Mr. Keating’s from Dead Poets Society—as played by Williams in that famous movie about poetry and prep school—I can’t click away. I’d like to, of course, having come to understand that film’s many flaws. They are flaws I was reminded of daily in the wake of Williams’s tragic suicide, flaws that were papered over as the country rushed to reminisce. There’s that scene where rich white kids chant Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo”— T.R. Hummer describes that poem as “poetry in blackface”—in some candle-lit, semi-secret cave. There’s the belief in boyish independence while all the boys depicted hew to “a particular teacher and his pseudo-philosophy” (Kenneth Price). (“I teach straying from me” Whitman tells us, “yet who can stray from me?” Clearly not Robert Sean Leonard.) There’re those autumn colors, insistently whispering this too shall pass. I get it: we’re young, we’re beautiful, carpe diem, come on.

[pullquote]We thought that we could be as cute as Ethan Hawke if we just learned how to feel.[/pullquote]And yet I must admit that for a certain contingent of mid-90s, non-jock teens, that movie mattered. We got excited for poetry and excitable teachers. We thought that we could be as cute as Ethan Hawke if we just learned how to feel. And it’s that feeling that Apple wants me to rekindle, doing so with a product that does more—or so this ad claims—than a Kindle or NOOK. It’s why they paid the big bucks for the Robin Williams audio. They want me to recall that distant time when I believed, however briefly, that nothing but writing lay ahead in my future, and all the cute girls would smile back. But there’s some solace when I think a little longer about this advertisement: on its face, it has very little to do with Walt Whitman and even less to do with lit. The poem in question—Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!”—is just a delivery system for Williams’s performance. If it were otherwise, Apple would have bought the verse cheaply, paying an out-of-work poet to read it aloud. He or she would have taken an iPad as payment. The poem’s long since lapsed into the public domain.

And yet I can’t seem to leave this ad well enough alone. I’ve bookmarked it and sent it to like-minded friends. Having pierced into some earlier, more naive me, it can’t be thwarted until it’s mocked by an older, smarter, and more disdainful self. But even that’s just the half of it. When I peel back my initial (and perhaps overzealous) indignation, I find a few questions I really want to ask: would Whitman mind hawking the latest, fanciest tablet? Would he celebrate or scorn the social media it supports? And how might we read “O Me! O Life!” in this new context? And why do I get so grouchy when I try?

So, let’s start by saying that, for the great mass of us, iPads will not stimulate the construction of wind farms or the mastery of Butoh dancing. Let’s say they’ll provide the opportunity—by way of apps and 4G networks and Facebook—to record our lived ephemera for the tenth time in a day. Let’s even say this is an okay use of our energies (it’s not), and this new world, comprised of quotidian minutiae, is held together by our love of the handheld device (it is). In that sort of world Whitman would arguably feel right at home. Among nineteenth century American poets, he most loved quotidian minutiae, from the “blab of the pave” to the diction of dockworkers, all of it assiduously recorded in notebooks and newspaper columns and postcards galore. Such notebooks would feed directly into the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Likewise the newspaper columns, where Whitman will wander through a market or alley just to stop and observe.[1] It’s unlikely then that he’d balk at cataloguing ephemera, having taken—in Specimen Days—the diary as his favored prose form. Or consider the problem from the side of technology. Whitman loved technology, paying tribute to it in “Passage to India” and supporting it through his many visits to the photographer’s studio. The camera democratized the whole of the visual field. Trains and ferries became tropes of national (and sexual) cohesion. The man even wrote a dedicatory poem for the 1871 National Industrial Exposition of the American Institute. [2] So who couldn’t imagine—however cringingly, however reluctantly—Walt Whitman tinkering with his iPad? Who couldn’t see him loving the selfie and the ease with which social media allows for self-promotion? His one monostich—“I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours in the great sea” (“To Old Age”)—is, at 95 characters (with spaces), a reasonably interesting Tweet.

But what of the endorsement? Would Whitman have approved? Again: probably so. When shown the logo on a box of Whitman cigars—by 1898 they’d be marketed as Blades O’Grass—he reportedly said “That is fame!” objecting only to his hat, which, “had [it] a little more height,” might “not be such an offense” (David Reynolds). The trend would continue long after he died. There have been Whitman brand groceries and a Walt Whitman Hotel; Old Crow whiskey claimed Whitman (a beer drinker) as a connoisseur; Starbucks sold gift cards with a line from the 1855 Preface. Death prevented Whitman from approving (and thus profiting from) these endorsements, but it’s likely he would’ve accepted the checks. An invalid by late life, he lived modestly, often on gifts his friends collected from supporters and detractors alike. He always hoped to achieve the middle-class acceptance that such products imply. Apple, to its credit, at least reads to us as it sells to us, which could theoretically lead a viewer back to the poems. So what is it that still bothers me about this advertisement? Have I simply become possessive—through excess love and long study—of a poet who asks me not to “look through the eyes of the dead” (“Song of Myself”)?

So I return to “O Me! O Life!” for some sort of clue. It is, like that other poem prominently featured in Dead Poets Society (the dreadful “O Captain! My Captain!”), vocatively super-charged:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

And now I’m starting to understand my response: the poem itself isn’t as hopeful as Williams’s recitation, which frontloads every syllable with the foreknowledge of those closing lines. Mr. Keating pep talks himself into a crescendo, but the inspiration is all acting, all oomph. The poem’s “Answer,” as printed, is more of a life preserver thrown into a sea of self-doubt. Take the “foolish” and “faithless” who open the poem. They’re alliteratively linked to their endless (“forever”) and vast (“cities fill’d”) plight. How often do crowds evoke despair in Whitman? Rarely. What about public transportation? Almost never. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” the two combine into a democratic and trans-historical orgasm. Even Lincoln’s death train—“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” appears, like this poem, in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865)—moves westward, toward promise and renewal. But this “O Me! O Life!” train is lonely, and its singer the loneliest passenger aboard. He is not “one of the crowd” but anonymous among “a plodding and sordid crowd.” There is such distance here, such overt despair, and such a desperate need to be heard. In this at least the poem is like Facebook: most posts (mine included) are thinly veiled appeals for response. They ask, like this poem, for someone, anyone, to tell them they care.

[pullquote]We are not rediscovering the world, via scuba diving or sumo wrestling, but mourning the country we nearly destroyed.[/pullquote]We might also consider the poem’s original context, historically speaking, and the discontinuity it presents when considered alongside its new one: a slick ad that borrows audio from a schmaltzy film. To put it bluntly, this is a postwar poem first published in an elegiac chapbook. Though the last two lines get remembered, it is the first seven that Whitman—still traumatized from Lincoln’s death, hospital amputations, and the Civil War—struggles to overcome. These tragedies, of course, are the “poor result of all,” mentioned in line five; the war’s aftershock is the “empty and useless years of the rest” noted in line six. The question Whitman asks is this: what are the prospects for any reconciliation begun with Presidential blood? And how can I—a lonely man, already exhausted from hospital visits—facilitate repairs? The vocatives then are not odic but bathetic, an impotence resulting from the melee our poet could neither prevent nor heal. Just take a peek at the other poems in Sequel to see what I mean. The lyric preceding “O Me! O Life!” ends with the speaker “[u]tterly abject, groveling on the ground” (it is never reprinted). The one to follow is titled “Ah Poverties, Wincings, and Sulky Retreats.” Thus my objection to this ad’s montage. We are not rediscovering the world, via scuba diving or sumo wrestling, but mourning the country we nearly destroyed.

Of course it’s not entirely fair to lay all the blame on Apple’s mad men, who—in their defense—are just following Robin Williams’s lead. The writers of Dead Poets Society take “O Me! O Life!” to be inspirational. Keating only quotes the poem to support his statement that “poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for!” This sounds Whitmanic enough, assuming you focus on Whitman without the Civil War. And if you lean on the poem’s “Answer” instead of its lead, you might concur with Keating. It affirms the individual among the many (“[t]hat you are here” as Williams reads it) and takes poetry (“contribute a verse”) as a metaphor for society itself. Keating literalizes that ending—you sorta have to write verse, in his reading, to be alive—but we get the idea. Give it a shot. Found a startup. Existential dread ain’t so awful that you’d forget all the world’s a stage. (It is notable, however, that none of the iPad users in this advertisement are writers—maybe because it’s uncinematic, maybe because it’s impossible to type comfortably on a touchscreen.)

Part of me wants to accept this more optimistic reading, and the whole of me—as a teenager, as a college applicant—did. I attended Denison University, a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere Ohio. I loved my little English Department and was tickled to learn, after I enrolled, that the real Mr. Keating had once taught in our Barney-Davis Hall. Or so claimed the school’s richest alumnus and former CEO of Disney: Michael Eisner ’64. When Eisner gave $1.75 million to the college in 2008, he did so to create the Dominick Consolo Endowed Professorship, thus honoring his favorite English prof who was, according to Eisner, the model for Mr. Keating. [3] Consolo had retired by the time I started college, though a few of his discarded books still floated around the department’s coffee table and shelves. I still have his copy of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. It represents something any artist working in an under-loved medium desires: a touch of the spotlight that will, from time to time, wander into the room. I know I kept it (and still keep it) for its symbolic value. It remains unread.

And yet even this—a distant, half-fictive relic of the “real” Keating—isn’t enough for me to believe the poem’s closing couplet makes up for its darker start. There is just something too sad about Whitman, the great poet of direct address, addressing himself in those final lines. A Whitmanic “you” ought to be a Reader, some possible lover and camerado, who could fulfill his longing with the steadfastness of a spouse. To hear that “you”—a pronoun that appears in “Song of Myself” more often than “I”—turned backward is to hear a self-help mantra where we’d expect an invitation to a tryst. It is as if Whitman’s trans-historical dialogue had locked up, suddenly solipsistic, and locked the reader out. You might argue that Whitman doesn’t speak the poem’s “Answer,” but if not he then who? Or you might claim the entreaty is another voice, but Whitman rarely engages in Frostian dialogues, and when he does we know who talks. [4] We are left then with a deflated conclusion: “you may contribute a verse.” Even this is a hedge. In 1865 the poem ended more decisively, Whitman telling himself “you will contribute a verse” (emphasis mine). He revised it to its final subjunctive in 1871. It seems he grew more cautious with age.

So here’s really why I object to Whitman shilling for the iPad Air. By importing “O Me! O Life!” into their montage, Apple juxtaposes—however inadvertently, with whatever good intentions—a digital goody with national grief. The pairing leaves us feeling as if the iPad might be a balm for all that Whitman (or the viewer) find disconcerting in the world. It ignores the speaker’s confessed failure, turning self-recrimination into a sales pitch. Of course, you can hardly blame Apple for the oversight. As I said before, they’re really only interested in that Dead Poets aura where youthful limitlessness abounds. They’ve no reason to question that aura, and no out-of-work scholars to do so on spec. But here’s something they do intend: they want you to think a device can make your life better, and make the best part of your life really good: your art. It all reminds me of another poem from the 1860s. In Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” the titular ghouls entice two girls to “Come buy, come buy” their “[a]pples and quinces,” their “[l]emons and oranges.” (The girls do; then they get sick). Buy an iPad, this Apple whispers, and you’ll surely create.

We’ve all fallen prey to this ploy, purchasing the finest paintbrushes and pigments, plunking down a month’s rent for the amp that will give the band its big break. I’m susceptible to Moleskine notebooks; others I know buy fancy pens. In all these instances, though, we hope a particular tool will make us write or paint or play better, feel more writerly or painterly, and give us that edge which—we must believe this—money can buy. But here’s one of the best things about writing: it requires so few tools (pen, paper, brain) that it’s hard to confuse its tools for its trade. And besides, digital tools are increasingly a distraction from the observed world that Whitman so loved. And without the observed world, there’s no poetry at all. Take Portland, for instance, where I now live and where our buses announce, via loudspeaker, that they’re turning, lest they run over a pedestrian glued to his phone. The war for attention, as Susan Nielsen writes in The Oregonian, is now “waged among our electronic devices” and our environment, and “has gotten totally out of hand.” Imagine Whitman on one of those buses. Imagine the story he’d tell if he saw a startled texter leap to the curb when confronted with twelve tons of metal and passengers and mechanical voice. Or imagine Twain in the same position. They’d both make it funny, trolling bystanders for details or a quote. Neither, though, would notice the near miss if they too were checking their phones.

[pullquote]We must choose the Whitman we like best.[/pullquote]This is the difference, I suppose, between recording quotidian minutiae and missing the street’s lived details for whatever minutiae comes Tumblring or Tweeting through your feed. The iPad then might be Whitmanic, or un-Whitmanic, depending on how you perceive its use and abuse. It is a problem, perhaps, of self-control, of whether we can operate our devices in a manner we deem productive, or whether those devices distract us from the slow, patient work of turning observations into art. Every day we wake up and face the problem anew. The culprit may be our smartphone or the limitless Wi-Fi pumped through our buildings like a pacifying gas. I for one am easily distracted, slow to write, and weary of anyone who claims a device will make my art-making any easier or more hip. I get that it works for David Hockney. I like his iPad drawings, though I still prefer his collages of 35mm prints. And I get that Whitman is various—“I contain multitudes,” we’re reminded—and we must choose the Whitman we like best.

And so it’s not hard for me to picture my Walt Whitman lingering over his iPad. He’d browse its features and marvel at its negligible weight. He’d love that logo, its Biblical allusion a wry nod to wanting something forbidden. (Dickinson would dig it too; her Mount Holyoke nickname was Eve). He’d probably even watch this new ad—which graphs a hockey team’s power play, which depicts schoolchildren encircling a digital globe—and think it all about himself. It is universalizing, international, and multi-racial; it is as warm as the touch he usually offers his readers. It is a touch, though, that is absent from “O Me! O Life!” He’d hold the thing a minute, flip it over, then hand it back. I imagine him walking off then. I see him buying a Golden Delicious from the bodega down the street.

—with thanks to Vanessa Seals


[1] From a piece in the Aurora, March, 1842: “We entered. What an array of rich, red sirloins, luscious steaks, delicate and tender joints, muttons, livers, and all the long list of various flesh stuffs burst upon our eyes!” (see Shelley Fishkin’s From Fact to Fiction).

[2] “Song of the Exposition,” a poem that netted Whitman $100 and gave us this single, memorable line from among 238 more-or-less forgettable others: “She’s here, install’d amidst the kitchen ware!” The she? A Muse, recently migrated “from Greece and Ionia.”

[3] Margot Singer, a storywriter who won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, now holds that chair. Eisner’s claim about the “real” Mr. Keating was reported in USA Today, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Upwards of twelve English professors have been cited as the “real” Keating, and Eisner’s claim rests on little more than the fact that Consolo was his favorite Denison prof. Tom Schulman, the film’s screenwriter, gives the nod to Samuel Pickering, whom he studied with at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Pickering would later write that “I did such things [as those depicted in Dead Poets Society] not so much to awaken students as to entertain myself” (Let it Ride, 1992). I am thankful to Dennis Read for this information.

[4] See, for instance, “The Centenarian’s Story” from Drum-Taps, where the second speaker, a one hundred-year-old Revolutionary War veteran, is clearly marked.

Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011); the poetry editor at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation; and a doctoral candidate at Stanford where he’s finishing a dissertation on Whitman and Dickinson. A former Axton Poetry Fellow at the University of Louisville and Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son. His poems, translations, and prose have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Court Green, and the anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. He can be reached at