O, Poet! O, Emerson! O, RuPaul!
Mar 18, 2014
"For all men live by truth," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1844 essay The Poet, "and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression." Walt Whitman answered Emerson's call, and in his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass writes, "whatever satisfies the soul is the truth." I believe in this statement. I also believe that the truth changes over time. Whitman revolutionized American poetry, but after a thing is revolutionized it grows comfortable again, moves inward, and forgets what's at stake; neglects to notice the shape of that soul-satisfying truth change.
The truth America needs now may be in the same vain as what Whitman wrote at in the mid 19th century, but the hue is different-- it suffered a change over time and now must reappear, by way of a bard, a new and higher form of itself. Thus, we must continue answering Emerson. There are poets who are doing it. Poets who are all at once rejecting and embracing America's imperfections. (I'm thinking Joe Wenderoth, Marcus Wicker, Dorthea Lasky, and insert-so-many-wonderful-others-here.) There are poets, too, of a different medium answering Emerson. Those seers who do not write their souls, but preform them. RuPaul recognizes herself as a "sensitive medium." Since the 80s she has been pushing the boundaries of gender, double knotting the laces to our dancing shoes, and revolutionizing the world of drag-- all while looking sickening, honey. RuPaul is the bard Emerson described: half himself, half his expression. RuPaul's expression does not end at her sickening beauty, but continues in her devotion to intellect. On her show RuPaul's Drag Race, her Queens are not only challenged to sing, sew, and act, but also create an intellectual platform for themselves.
These challenges are often engaged with something Emerson calls recognizing "the passage of the world into the soul of man."
Take Season 2 of Drag Race: Ru asks her girls to pitch their autobiographies documenting their gestation as young boys in the process of discovering their homosexuality, their birth into gay culture, and their individual growth through the art of Drag. Or Season 5 when Ru challenges the girls to "Frock the Vote" and create a political campaign to be the first Drag Queen President of the United States; a political commentary given by Drag Queens not exclusively for Drag Queens, but for an entire people; the gesture of community, of nationhood, or oneness that Whitman breathed by: I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Will our first President-in-Drag grace the White House any time soon? Maybe not, but Ru's challenges encourage the Queens to foster an awareness she has achieved over the arc of her career
—a consistent understanding of the world and how it is manifested within themselves.
RuPaul capitalizes on sustaining this almost spiritual awareness during an interview for the New York Times with Marcus Marby. When Marby asks what she thinks is next on the march toward increasing acceptance of LGBT rights, Ru doesn't hesitate before saying, "I think it would have to be gay people extracting the shame out of the experience. Now obviously a lot as been extracted out, but there's still so much." Her quick honesty is in many ways prophetic. Her tone is encouraging. What she says next is indicative of the seer Emerson continues, desperately, to call: It's all about knowing that everybody that you see, everybody that you sit across from is a different aspect of yourself. So once you can accept yourself on every level, that's when everything opens up, that's when the party really begins. She, a mirror of Whitman: And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward toward them, And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, And of these one and all I weave the song of myself. All human beings live by truth. Whatever satisfies us is the truth. RuPaul consistently gives us Bare Soul Realness, or as Emerson might put it, "he is the poet, and shall draw us with love and terror, who sees, through the flowing vest, the firm nature, and can declare it."