Friday, March 06, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Whitman II

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 individual lines in the poem.

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


Whitman: “The Sleepers”

Whitman is constantly at pains to both create a poetic argument that overflows, so stark and radical that its pieces are vivid and unmistakable, and yet balances everything in its reach, which ultimately, if successful, is everything. This is ultimately what leads him to echo Emerson in “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (“Song,” v. 1324-26) Whitman creates these ebbing ratios, where his argument shifts concurrent to the stance his opposition will mount, by at various times blurring and then differentiating, engulfing and subsuming, and then urging to independent growth and life.

A good example of this is in “The Sleepers.” In the stanza at v. 132 Whitman mounts one of his blending exercises, listing a great series of opposites and antagonists. He begins, notably, with “The homeward bound and the outward bound” (v. 132). This is a grand signal, to those who point inwards, to themselves, and those who point outside of themselves, to others. And after his long list of
The antipodes, and every one between this and them in the dark,
I swear they are averaged now—one is no better than the other,
The night and sleep have liken’d them and restored them. (v. 141-3)
The darkness, the night, blend everything together—when you can’t see anything, how do you tell them apart? Whitman isn’t finished, though. His great transumptive move lies in the formula: “The myth of heaven indicates peace and night.” (v. 148)

“Myth” indicates a longstanding, though wrong, belief, “heaven” the typical, universal-type Godness, and the extraordinary move is that the fact that we have this myth, that indicates “peace and night.” The death of agonism, of our push and pull with each other, this peace promised by heaven eternal is bought with a relativistic averaging, with darkness, not the usual talk of God’s light. By Whitman’s reckoning, the very idea of heaven is what gives us the idea of night—by creating the illusion of an absolute, that is when we create the spectare of relativism.

Whitman: “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “Song of the Open Road”

It is difficult, once one gets going, to see anything in Whitman other than figure after figure designed to pull in and appropriate as much for himself as possible, something like a rolling back of time so that Whitman, rather than God, might name everything (the same goes for Emerson). “Song of the Open Road” is no different. It is difficult not to see in Whitman’s “old delicious burdens” (v. 12) Harold Bloom’s burdens of influence, those anxieties of past relations that not only cause the poet pain, but also enable his craft. Whitman calls them “delicious” because he has moved beyond fear of the past and instead sees them as his playthings, meals on which to gorge himself. Bloom’s revisionary ratio of apophrades, whereby the later poet attains such strength as to seem to write his precursors poems, is carried out in, “I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return” (v. 15)—Whitman takes in the past, only to make it seem as if he had put the past there in the first place.

The sway between the modern distinction of inward and outward, and the Greek distinction between essence and accident, characteristically make a significant appearance in Whitman’s poetic argument. On the first score, the “open road” appears as a figure embodying freedom and self-creation. Whitman, like Emerson, is constantly at us to create ourselves, not “old smooth prizes,” but “rough new prizes.” (v. 141) Entrenchments of various kinds are treated as the enemy to the high adventure of wandering. Line 145 offers an interesting one:
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly
settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an
irresistible call to depart,
What leaves us puzzled is that we are called by an irresistible call. Being called by a call doesn’t really tell us anything about where the call came from, and I surmise that the call was internal. Whitman doesn’t say that the road called us, but simply a call, isolated and unoriginated, like an echo without a source, thus rising up mysteriously within us. Later, however, we do get its source, formerly obscured—Whitman himself: “You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.” (v. 190)

The image of the house, or in the other poem’s case, the spider’s web, allows me to bridge to the essence/accident contrast. Whitman commonly uses the image of Nature, and standing naked to it, as a picture of desired unmediatedness. In “Only the kernel of every object nourishes,” (v. 88) he calls upon the Greek distinction in order to claim that words are tidied up and fashioned for us, and that these were accidents, “husks” (v. 89) to be stripped away. This may be a speculative leap, but I consider that to be hidden in this line: “Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and him?” It is difficult to tell whether Whitman is shifting to the verb “envelopes,” which he uses quite frequently, after the conjunction, or whether he’s using the noun. Say he meant the noun—where is the guy who will undo the packaging of our letters? Upon that derivation, we see the Platonist’s distrust of words, that how our alphabet is packaged, in words and sentences that mean certain things, is all contingent and a big accident. Whitman wants to start over again, get to the kernel, and name everything over again.

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