The first two weeks took us from the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) through the third edition of 1860. We read and discussed poems central to any Whitman canon, including as “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” But we also touched on lesser known poems and prose. We discussed a vitriolic passage from “The Eighteenth Presidency,” for example, and noted its poetic counterpart in the eventually expurgated “Poem for the Proposition of Nakedness,” later titled “Respondez!” These moments of unhinged discord in Whitman seem to function as release valves in a way; they contain a host of negative and critical energies that Whitman felt he couldn’t include in his main body of work.
The early editions of Leaves correspond to the years directly before the Civil War began in 1861, a time during which slavery was one of the most contentious and divisive topics in America. We discussed the compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and Whitman’s complex and confounding dual role as an apparently open-minded poet on the one hand and a frustratingly close-minded man on the other. Thus, while Whitman’s capacious poetic vision seems at times to transcend race, he was, in his journalism, a steadfast proponent of white labor. And while he certainly grasped the utter contradiction of slavery in a supposed Republic of equals–a lesson learned first person when he lived briefly in New Orleans and saw slave markets function first hand–he remained highly suspicious of abolitionists. We noted other important pieces of Whitman’s historical context as well. This was a time when the forces of industrialization, expansion of the railroads, and immigration were causing massive change. All of this made it into Whitman’s verse. His catalogs included young and old, men and women, slaves and suicides, telegraphs and railroads, prostitutes and presidents.
Speaking of Whitman’s innovative and capacious catalogs, the first quiz focused on a key passage from “Song of Myself” in which Whitman brashly asks: “To be in any form, what is that? […] Mine is no callous shell.” Little did Whitman know that he was posing the most crucial question in subsequent American poetry. As Whitman broke with traditional forms and metrics, the question of form became one not of imitation, but invention—invention of both a poetic self and a nation. In class, we discussed Whitman’s many innovations and what they signified: the long line, the loose serial structure of his long poems, the clashing rhetorics of high and low culture. As inventive as he was in forging a new poetic vision, Whitman also borrowed from the past, and from other genres: the incantatory quality of his chants borrow from the tropes of speech (anaphora, etc.), and his use of parallelism reminds us of the bible and Hebrew poetry.
In many of the early poems, we noted a deep sense of crisis. After the first edition of Leaves, it seems Whitman crafted out a careful rhetoric of crisis and recovery. We discussed “As I Ebbed with the Ocean of Life” as the quintessential pre-war poem in this mode as it moves in four parts from confidence to crisis to sacrifice to recovery. Here is Whitman’s hopeful, devastating road map to national healing on the eave of the Civil War. As we know, the center would not hold.
One can’t address everything in these ClassWrap entries, but I should at least note, in passing, just a bit more of what transpired during these first two weeks. We interrogated nearly every moment, many quite problematic, where Whitman reflects upon, or, in some cases, embodies or becomes, an African American body. We discussed, with the help of Justine’s close intention to Whitman and gender, how the bard seems to assign limited roles to women in particular, despite his apparently revolutionary pretensions. We discussed the quieter, homosexual Whitman of the Calamus cluster and situated his political ideals of comradeship in relation to Whitman’s more personal passion and sexual identity.
In all of these discussions, our emphasis was never on some limited Whitman representing this or that canon; rather, we have indulged in Whitman’s many guises: the dandy, the city-walker, one of the roughs, the wound-dresser, the gay poet, the good gray poet, the enabling voice, the disabled body, the solitary singer, the anarchist—and that’s just the start. As we compiled all of these Whitmans, we also worked to set up a sturdy framework for reading the poet that gets at certain key pressure points, certain moments of unbalance or unease. Thus, we often found Whitman strung between the one and the many, ego and empathy, the individual body and the body politic.
Quote and Tell: “Song of Myself,” Section 28
Is this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself…
In this section, Whitman blends marshal (“treacherous,” “rush,” “sentries,” “traitor,” “strike,” “red marauder”), auto/sexual (“tip of me,” “touch,” “quivering,” “stiffening,” “withheld drip,” “licentious,” “unbuttoning,” “bare”) and pastoral (herd, headland, pasture-fields, graze,” “showering rain”) rhetorics in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to find out exactly what is happening and why. When Whitman writes of “My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself,” we get a stunning conflation of masturbatory and militaristic language–a stunning conflation on the eave of the Civil War.
This entrance of “touch” comes at a crucial section in “Song of Myself,” one where the poem veers off-course. The sexuality we witness here is not confident and liberatory, but dangerous and violent. The passions here seem out of control; the metaphors cannot be contained. Whitman presents the aberrant passions of the body as a way to figure the coming increasingly disunion of the composite body politic of the United States. Just as the auto-erotic and group-sex fantasies threaten to overwhelm the individual in this poem, so to do the aberrant and rancorous passions of a country threaten to divide it. Once we understand this as more than a fantasy confined solely to a single body, we begin to see how Whitman views his body as a metaphor for the body politic at large throughout his work. Whitman may contain multitudes, but it’s rarely as easy as it sounds when he haughtily tosses off that famous line.
Core Concepts: Influence
On the first day of class, we discussed Harold Bloom’s notion that there are no poems, only relationships between poems. Lindsey and Dana offered a more charitable reading of the idea, honing in on that key word: relation. They sensed a certain emotional and existential potential in this idea of poetic influence that will remains absolutely crucial in this course. Marco, tempering that sense of optimism, thought the quote created an autolectic world where poems only speak to poems in some rarified textual universe. Bloom, of course, is famous for his notion of the “Anxiety of Influence.” Influence, for him, was an Oedipal struggle between strong poets and their poetic predecessors. This is perhaps even more limited than Marco’s depiction of influence caught in the prison house of language.
I chose to share that quote from Bloom on the first day of class not because his limited idea of influence is true or correct in most cases, but because he provocatively challenges us to think of poems as not solely the creation of their authors. Poems are part of a broader scheme of call and response, works that resist, challenge, and embrace preceding poets and poems. He challenges us to remember that poems are ever mindful of other poems and other poets. As we study Whitman and prepare to gauge myriad poetic responses to him, we’ll come back to, expand, and refine this core concept of influence again and again.
If “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” is the preeminent pre-war poem of crisis and recovery, sacrifice and transcendence, then “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is its post-war counterpart. Pay attention to what Whitman does in this poem—a great elegy to Lincoln, though Lincoln is never named. Whitman invents a series of symbols in this poem. What are they, and how do they help him move beyond the strife and struggle of the Civil War? Do you find him successful in this attempt at symbolic transcendence of the bloodiest war ever fought on US soil? What are the moments of doubt or uncertainty here? FYI, the poem recounts the multi-city funeral train that brought Lincoln’s corpse from D.C. to Springfield.
“I Sit and Look Out” is always a surprising poem to me, a poem at the end of which the famously gregarious Whitman is unable to utter any words. It reminds me of the questioning conclusion to “Facing West from California’s Shores” that we discussed during our last class. How do you interpret Whitman’s silence at the end of this poem?
Please use the comment box below to fill in any crucial missing details. What was most important and/or moving to you that I didn’t address above?