Whitman and Convergence
April 20, 2009
Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories—Grobstein and Dalke
For many, the opening lines of the poem that commences Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass (that which would eventually be titled “Song of Myself”) are abrasively arrogant. As the poet “celebrates” himself, and eventually goes on to assert that he is “the reminder of life,” Whitman is sometimes read as a conceited, perhaps even didactic, optimist. Such egocentric confidence may be gleaned as much through Whitman’s “free” form as it is through his adulatory content. The fragmented, seemingly undirected litanies of people, places, objects both man-made and natural, and, most prominently, himself that comprise “Song of Myself” appear to both evoke and provoke a phenomenological experience rather than a methodological dissection. In light of this ephemeral and meandering language, Whitman’s writing appears to be a poetic illustration of the mind—“stream of consciousness” as a representation of an unabashed unconscious.
However, to read Whitman’s digressive and obsessive poem as a pure portrayal of how the mind, in general, associates and deviates, is to obscure the particular position of Whitman’s mind and politics. As post-structural theory has taught us, it is always precarious to ascribe intentionality to an author based on his/her historical context given that history, like everything else, is subject to interpretation. However, with such a precaution in mind, I wish to suggest that rather than a mimetic example of the workings of a mind free from judgment and the constraints of consciousness, Whitman’s work may instead be understood as a conscious reconfiguration of the future.
Such an attempt to re-envision the future, particularly in regards to perceptions of the body, are understood more clearly when one considers Whitman’s present. The mid-nineteenth century found America faced with a number of rapid changes that destabilized conceptions of both the physical soma and the national body. In a moment marked by an influx of immigration, the escalation of industry, and the rising din of a contentious debate regarding slavery that threatened to, and eventually did, tear the country in two, Whitman wrote a poem that spoke of bodily merging, and celebrated “multitudes” dwelling together.
As Whitman uses “free” form that clearly breaks from the rigid verses of his predecessors, he pushes the progress of poetry forward past its present state, effectively refashioning its future. Though Whitman writes in the present tense, it is only by writing, and offering his writing to his readers, that the picture of “free” love and bodily amalgamation make be called forth. Thus, both the formal and thematic aspects of “Song of Myself,” evoke and imply liberation from both the past and the present.
When, in the opening lines, Whitman addresses a presumed reader, “you,” he signals a future moment, in which his poem will be read. Therefore, it is not in the moment in which he writing that the he has reason to celebrate himself and others, but rather, this joyous bodily merger will become so only when it is completed by the presence of an outside reader. Though the seemingly random and rambling lines of “Song of Myself” at first appear to be a depiction of the associative qualities of the unconscious mind, considering the controlled invocation of a reader may revive a sense of authorial intention, and an optimistic gesture towards time to come, as opposed to a positive outlook on the times that be.
 I am here relying on the responses and discussions generated in our class in regard to Whitman.