Prior to this class, my only experience with Walt Whitman was reading “Song of Myself” as a freshman. Therefore, understanding the verse of this madman poet certainly takes some adjustment. I find that the frenetic energy his poetry exudes is fitting with the juxtaposition of contradictory ideas that abound in his work. As I work through and explore more Whitmans, I am struck by a few things that stand out to me. Whitman is undeniably a poet of inclusion of all and celebration of the individual; in fact, praising individuals is part of his method of pronouncing the glory and equality of all humanity. As unbiased and egalitarian as Whitman tries to be, everyone is still a product of their cultural environment, which can be seen in Whitman’s conflicting ideas about slavery.
At the end of our quiz in class we were asked to write down a question we would like to ask Whitman, since he asks so many of us. While reading I have found myself examining his treatment of males and females and feel inclined to ask Whitman, if he were alive and well today, how he would feel about the role of women in modern society. On any topic, if Whitman discusses one aspect of it he always returns with a discussion of the other side. Whenever Whitman mentions genders he strives so hard to appear equal, such as “The Female equally with the Male I sing” (“One’s Self I Sing”, line 6), among many other examples. However, throughout many of his catalogs Whitman mentions different roles of men and women. Men’s roles are varied and multiple, from boatmen to farmers, slaves, workers, lawyers, the President, and on and on. On the other hand, there are very few roles he assigns to women, namely mother, wife, factory worker, or prostitute. In the extensive catalogues found throughout much of his poetry it truly surprises me that there is so little variation on the roles assigned to women. While Whitman makes sure to celebrate females as equally as males in general terms, the specifics he chooses cause the assurance of equality to ring slightly false to me, and thus to question Whitman’s other emphases on equality. The poems I have read so far are before the Women’s Rights Movement gained momentum, so presumably Whitman is working within his cultural timeframe. Or as a novice Whitman reader perhaps I am reading this from the wrong angle, or simply have not been exposed to other poems that have different roles for women. Either way, I am interested in continuing to note the role of women in Whitman’s poems and coming to a better understanding of his poetics and mindset in general.