Okay, by now everyone knows what I am referring to – the Volvo commercial that is on all the time. My first exposure, which was a month or so ago, was while I was at my laptop and my back was to the TV, so I only heard the voice over. I immediately recognized the voice of Josh Brolin (what does that say of my intellectual life!), and the lyrical words sounded familiar. I thought initially that it was Jack Kerouac, but I knew that couldn’t be right – they were too good, too exultant. I’m not putting Kerouac down, I read On the Road and some of his other works, but Kerouac is sort of niche and before my time. The allure of heading west in a car with Dean Moriarty is a little passé.
My second guess was Walt Whitman. I checked online and also pulled out my copy of Leaves of Grass, and indeed it is he. “Song of the Open Road” is the poem. The words are captivating and memorable. I find it interesting that Whitman, who preceded Kerouac by almost 100 years, holds up — more than holds up — he has a gravitational pull. What also delights me is that my millennials – my 15-17 year olds — who watch television and movies and shows in entirely different nontraditional ways know this commercial, love it and love the words and want to know more about Whitman. Isn’t it marvelous that he is being discovered by a new generation? I think it is. I also like the fact that a car commercial is the delivery system for a poet’s discovery. Why not?
To be sure, Whitman has never been lost, he’s been popular and in print consistently – but what I hope is this new embrace is an indication of the temper of the time, or a rejection of it. I mean the free verse, the appreciation of self, the inclusivity, the reaching for transcendence is attractive to millennials — it dovetails with their sensibility. For the non-millennials he is a balm for the over-concentration on what is harsh and angry — fearful. Whitman completely turns us around, away from “ugly”, away from the status quo, and tells us to look over there — to what is beautiful, eternal, luminous.
NB, As I write this I remember that Whitman also makes a significant appearance in the extraordinary TV series, Breaking Bad. It is Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” that draws in Walter White, and it also leads to his and his family’s unraveling.