Archive for February, 2014

Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

Walt Whitman, 1872

Walt Whitman, 1872

In “Song of Myself,” section 48, Whitman advises: “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.” Whitman’s master work has been itching at my ears probably since I was first introduced to him at age thirteen. Having finished another reading of his long song, I encounter new nuances, sounds, meanings, and responses. “Song of Myself” warrants a reading at least once a year. Sections merit reading, if only in part, to open presidential conventions, and fittingly too, at political party events, particularly Democratic Party ones to re-invigorate liberalism, which has largely been emasculated in American politics. Lines like this from section 24 may reanimate zeal for the rights of man: “I give the sign of democracy/By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” The poem sings an unparalleled litany to the common man, the laborer, the builders, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly that make up the fabric of humanity.

I would like to hear “Song of Myself” set to music as a magnificent opera in which parts are singled out for tenor, bass, soprano and alto arias, alternated with sections sung by the full choir. Maybe a composer has tried this already, but was it a musical arrangement of the entire poem? Whitman’s ghost, a great opera lover, would sit in the balcony, listening to its stage debut. To attend such an opera would be to truly hear America singing.

This time around reading “Song of Myself” I am more than ever impressed by the poem’s mystical nature. Whitman possesses a cosmic awareness. His cosmic vision banishes time and space; past, present, and future merge in his ecstatic vision. “I am afoot with my vision,” he writes. “I am the clock myself.” Lines dazzle me that I missed in prior readings, such as “bravura of birds.” Then suddenly, the joy of recognition strikes me, encountering these three lines in section 40: “To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean,/On his right cheek I put the family kiss/And in my soul I swear I never will deny him.” Then I see Pope Francis kissing the deformed man and I catch the references to Jesus Christ.

There are so many wondrous passages to cite from “Song of Myself.” The poem demands to be read in its entirety–and aloud–to absorb its full vigor and cadence, the muscularity of its lines, and the cosmic energy that suffuses the whole. So many parts saying in one way or another–all creation is glorious, all men and women, races and creeds are equal, all mankind partakes of divinity, the voice of the I singing representative of the whole. Above all we are immortal.  Whitman asserts: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” And also he immediately adds, to live.  The self is the ultimate arbiter: “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” Mystical union with the divine does not come from books. Whitman enjoins us to go outside; discover the self, which is divine. He writes: “Logic and sermons never convince/The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.”

This song in praise of Myself is also of one of the world soul. The universal resonance of the poem leads me to assert that it is not just a work of American literature, but a classic of world literature. I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a British woman who was my colleague while teaching English in the Middle East. We disagreed with the materials the men selected for the American literature course, which the women’s faculty had no part in formulating. I stated that I thought there were three major American poets suitable and accessible to non-native English speakers–Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. These are the giants of American poetry and should be studied. My British colleague unequivocally agreed.

This time around reading “Song of Myself,” section 11, affords fresh responses. This section with the three lines of anaphora–twenty-eight young men–has always baffled me. Why twenty-eight?  I ask myself a similar question: Why fifty-two sections  to the poem? I answer for the fifty-two weeks of the year.  The rich, lonely lady who lives in fine house by the rise of the bank observes the male bathers. There is another observer presumably male–the lusty Whitman. He wonders which of the men she will choose and concludes: “Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.”  I derive now from this enigmatic tableau that Whitman implies all types of love are equal. Furthermore, love does not discriminate.  In this little scene we have a man and a woman both engaged in their individual imaginings, and they converge in equal admiration and love for twenty-eight men. They cannot single one or another as better or worthier of their love. And what to make of twenty-eight–the number of days in four weeks?  Whitman does a lot of counting in his poem and fills an amplitude of days and nights. The inference is one of abundance, a superfluity; he is the clock, keeping time, measuring the pulse of the seasons.  The poem is his abolition of the calendar, his testament to immortality, his obliteration of time and space. He is of all ages and of all mankind. He has inspired other poets not only Americans. He is the inspiration for this poem of mine:

I Hear Walt Whitman Singing

I hear Walt Whitman singing.
Humming the psalm of the universal soul,
In youth I swilled his verses; I’m old
And echo his hymns to earth and sky.
Rich and poor, mechanic and scholar,
Ant and elephant occupied a place
In his broad compass and so do I,
I, of the generations after him crossing
Brooklyn Ferry, chewing a blade of grass.

I hear Walt Whitman singing.
Lofting in Montana, he’s a golden eagle
On wings of windsong. I see him
Ascend over my mountain home,
Dally among the larches, spy a mole
In the grass, clasp it like a word to maw.
He blabs with the pine squirrel,
He blooms with the glacier lily,
Pulsing with his baritone, I gulp sky.

I hear Walt Whitman singing
Everywhere, in glade or ghetto,
In coyote call or infant’s wail,
In the snap of twig or clap of thunder,
In flash of trout on my silver hook.
His sea chanteys in my ear thrum,
Whisper, bellow, croon eternally
Faithful like the tide-tossed strand,
Rocking me in the cradle, endlessly.