Archive for September 15th, 2009

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Author:


I’m a newcomer to the world of Whitman and I have to say that my first reaction to “Song of Myself” was annoyance and disbelief. I was really put off by Whitman’s style– his universal “I”, his gut-wrenching romanticism, his talking to inanimate objects (O this! O that!), his dirty-old man sensuality, his messianic complex, his lack of meter, his childlike awe of every detail of the universe, and his contradictions challenge the reader like no other poet. The 1855 reviews of Leaves of Grass show that I’m not alone.

I read part of the poem aloud to some friends. They laughed and thought I was making it up (part of this could have been the NPR voice I was imitating). They couldn’t believe that this was the work of America’s most celebrated poet–for whom bridges, schools, and beers have been named. Did Whitman really think he was a poet-messiah who was going to change the world? Did he take himself seriously? How can he be the poet of democracy if he is rarely read outside of the academic world?

A deeper understanding gained from close reading and historical analysis has changed my view of Whitman. Whitman has been growing on me.

“Song of Myself” is Whitman giving the finger to convention. He was boldly challenging the literary, sexual and religious norms of his time. To appreciate this, I had to challenge my own expectations of what literature should be. If you expect the poet to be modest, witty, down-to-earth, plausible, sensible, tasteful, and politically correct and to actually rhyme, Whitman will make your head explode.  By getting beyond these expectations and conventions, the reader is free to accept the poems on Whitman’s terms.  When you untangle the imagery, you might find yourself relating to what he says.

One key for me was being aware of the universal “I”. The first lines of the poem are like a disclaimer which I didn’t see the first time. Seeing “I” in this new light offers a new perspective on the poem’s egoism.

I celebrate myself

and what I assume, you shall assume

for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

When Whitman writes “I” he means “we”. What a relief. He’s not so pompous after all.  Although I still roll my eyes sometimes when I read Whitman, I can’t resist the beauty and honesty of certain passages.  The more I read and understand, the more I put aside my hands-folded-across-my-chest attitude and feel refreshed by Whitman’s raw, naked, awestruck wonder of the world. Don’t read Whitman with folded arms. Suspend your disbelief the same you do when you watch cartoons, Broadway musicals, or political speeches. Accept the format and language Whitman has chosen for his vision and appreciation will follow.

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