Friday, February 20, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Whitman I

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the individual lines of each poem.

I should also note that Bloom is hiding behind my reading of Whitman (particularly the vocabulary deployed).


Whitman: “Song of Myself,” I

The poet of Emersonianism, Whitman quickly states his subject-matter with “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” (v. 1) It is not that Whitman is himself singing, it is that he’s singing a song called “Myself.” The first thing Whitman must set to move out of the way is the past, a recurrent theme during the Romantic period. “Creeds and schools in abeyance,/Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten.” (10-11) What Whitman seeks is “original energy.” (13)

In the second section Whitman sets out on his leisurely, light voyage, sniffing “shelves crowed with perfumes.” (14) Books stand in for the past and by likening books with odors, he imbues them with an optional ephemerality, a wafting buoyancy that the past rarely displays. Whitman will not let the past intoxicate him, but instead wishes to find Nature and “become undisguised and naked,” seeking “for it to be in contact with me.” (19-20) It is interesting and significant that Whitman should be naked, for in the long Platonic tradition of standing reality apart from her appearances, it is most often reality that we wish to see naked. Whitman has already internalized the Kantian Copernican shift that Emerson saw clearly—reality is always naked and it is us who need to shed our encumbrances.

This shedding maneuver climaxes with the section’s last stanza:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
If with the first line Whitman states his premise, “what I assume you shall assume,” (2) the conclusion of the second section states his “intricate purpose.” (382) Persons, and indeed the whole cosmos (“earth and sun”), are likened to poems and that is the originary power we are seeking. We are ever-elongating texts, songs whose melodies may repeat motifs and accumulate harmonies, but whose true power lies in the note not yet sung, a repetition of what the first note was also—new. Whitman’s design is Emersonian. He realizes that the only way for us to follow him, as in Emerson, is to be non-didactic, even anti-didactic (“not look through my eyes”), though of necessity something is taught, something imparted, something passed from Whitman to the reader. Whitman and Emerson can be seen to be teaching forms, while leaving content to their newly self-reliant auditors, but Whitman is so strong a poetic power, so keen to protect its originality and newness, that he recognizes that any repetition will diminish him, take from him, like a metaphor dying. And so Whitman wishes also to block us from that (“nor take things from me”). Whitman’s method (which, given his poetic paranoia, we should wonder if it is his actual method, or simply the one he’s putting on the screen) is to take in all around and then filter what you find from yourself. An echo of Emerson’s dark anxiety, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” (Emerson 139) Whitman finds the path to the origin of all poems as an emptying gesture, taking in the past so as to ebb it all away, leaving us with only what is uniquely us.

Whitman: “Song of Myself,” II

Stanza 24 sees a continuance of Whitman’s Emersonianism. It begins grandly, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos….” (v. 497) “Kosmos” is the transliteration of the Greek word, which otherwise in English is “cosmos.” Whitman’s use of the Greek, rather than English, may be just fancy, but it is notable that in Greek kosmos is the noun form of a parent verb that means something like “to set in order, or arrange,” with aesthetic and moral overtones (whereas the English “cosmos” has no verb counterpart and so hangs more statically). Leaving aside the Greek roots, “cosmos” has come down to us as more or less coextensive with “universe.” What is significant is the article, “a kosmos,” not “the kosmos” as would be expected if we were talking about the only one of something, like the universe.

This is a tone of paradoxicality that Whitman breeds and thrives on throughout the poem—Whitman, “me myself,” is both universe and multiverse, one voiced and several, individual and society, everything and nothing and something. Whitman gives “the sign of democracy,” which is that he “will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” (v. 506-7) This should strike us as a tremendous move of equality, similar to Gloria Allred’s current legal argument about the recently passed Prop. 8 in California banning gay marriage—under California’s equal protection clause, if some class is forbidden marriage, all shall be forbidden marriage (and so the reductio ad absurdum).

However, notice the fourth line of the stanza: “…no stander above men and women or apart from them.” (v. 499) This is, again, a democratic move, eliminating the hierarchical nature of other modes of government and being. It also strikes a tone of solidarity, “or apart from them.” This figure, neither above nor apart, tends to meld in Whitman into a homogenizing relativism. Whitman will be the voice of “many long dumb voices,” (v. 508) but these are the voices of not only the inhumanly silenced, like slaves, but also the wicked, like thieves. By eliminating hierarchy, Whitman also seems to be eliminating value judgments. Whitman calls these voices “forbidden,” (v. 516) which suggests that these voices are silenced by an external authority, and that “by me” they are “clarified and transfigur’d.” (v. 518) What they are is him, the kosmos, nobody apart from anybody, all the same—him.

Whitman: “Song of Myself,” III

As I meditated on previously, Whitman is the poet of a paradoxical democracy and we can see one of his techniques in his gargantuan lists, lines that begin similiarly, and in most cases exactly, to each other, but are filled in differently. In stanzas 31 and 33 we encounter two more substantial lists. On the one hand Whitman’s lists have the effect of lighting areas that were commonly neglected by the so-called “higher arts” and so can be seen to be a kind of “poetry for the people.” By taking “low” subject-matter, particularly bodily and sexual (for example, v. 520’s “bowels” and 819’s “thighs and lips”), he is able to extend the purview of art and discourse to areas previously “forbidden.” (v. 516)

The problem with Whitman’s lists is that while they call attention to a vast array of items, “the buzzard,” “the snake,” “the elk,” (v. 679-81) “the native,” “the foreign,” “the homely woman,” “the handsome,” (v. 774-5), they are also pallid images with no life outside of their brief mentions in a litany that is expressly built to blend, and therefore homogenize. Metaphors and similes work to break down contrastive effects, they take two different things and bring them together through the verb “to be” or the preposition “like,” but while both poetic figures require two different things to create the effect, if overused they die and the items lose contrast, becoming not metaphoric but literal. As with Whitman’s lists, they are homogenizing tropes, blending all together to make equal and the same.

Whitman, however, seems to see us coming. Whitman is dancing in this poem, enacting a sequence of poetic defense, shifting his posture in time to the music of our protests. If we might protest that his poetry reduces us, Whitman will reply: “If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment, reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run” (v.1191). Whitman’s true goal, he will remind us, is to get all of us to become ourselves. He meditates quite frequently on himself, and “any thing is but a part,” (v. 1195) no doubt of himself, that kosmos, but Whitman is “the teacher of athletes” (v. 1234) and we are all, to ourselves, a kosmos.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: