Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For submissions: cutbankonline.org


Dear Philene –

I didn’t answer the question you asked in New Delhi. You probably forgot about it when we ran from the police station after they tried extorting me for reporting the pick-pocket. But your request has haunted me, “Tell me more about Whitman’s genius.” Volumes have been written about Walt and my letter, sketched on this train to Agra, may not give you what you want, but I’ll try.

He knew what it is to pause and observe, how to synthesize his deft observations into a written micro view for an intuited macro view. To use the description of Wordsworth on what poets do, “write strong feelings recollected in tranquility.”

This required a piece of his soul, less dramatically, a primary ability to feel something. One of my professors in Chicago said, “most of my counseling clients fall asleep telling their own story.” They didn’t feel anything about their own lives, anyone, or anything else.

I mourn that inability in an emotionally blunted American culture. Perhaps it’s different in Holland. Empathy and the ability to feel is important not just for a poet, but for a person. I read that some communication scholars believe empathy is the most important communication skill.

Empathy requires taking the risk to feel my experience first and then learn what others feel.