Sunday, August 30th, 2009 | Author:

Whitman as a writer kind of leaves me breathless; I always need to take an hour or two to clear my head after I put him down, because his words often fill me with more ideas and thoughts than I can express (which is why I’m sure by the time this is posted, I will have edited it many, many times).

One of the first things that really struck me when I began reading Leaves of Grass was the way Whitman places himself (or rather, the speaker) among his readers. Throughout “Song of Myself” and the preface, Whitman describes himself in terms of each and every part of the country. Through this, he makes a point unifying the country, calling America “the grandest poem” (5), and rushing to connect each and every portion of the nation, from the “Yankee” to the “Comrade of Californians” (42). He even does this visually, becoming a champion of the polysyndeton, as if he even wants to connect the country visually in one sentence. Whitman stresses, over and over again, that he is “one of the citizens” (76). He is part of this unification just as much as every other American is. His thoughts are the thoughts of all Americans, and that the ideas that he brings up are the notions that every man carries in his breast—from the slave to the sea captain to the prostitute. He is united not merely in sympathy; he “becomes” (65) the individuals.

And yet this poet, in his universality, seems to set himself apart from the rest of us. In fact, the American Poet is so great and divine that he becomes a sort of messianic figure, especially in the preface. The poet has a “divine voice” (19), and has “higher notions of prudence” (20) in regards to food or sleep (something I interpreted as sort of an ascetic’s lifestyle).   On page 11, Whitman directs the reader with a sort of set of commandments, telling the reader “This is what you shall do.” This sets him up with a leadership position, someone who, as the prophetic American Poet, would know how to direct mankind. The poet is a champion of men; his job is to “cheer up slaves and horrify despots” (17). Put in this position, he can be ultimately joined with neither those above, nor below him. Throughout the entire piece, Whitman has set this poet up as one who knows more, who does more, and feels more.  The poet is a leader among men, set to lead us and show us the way. And with this imbued divinity and advantage over his peers, he can not “become” (65) or ever be any of us . He is too high above them.

This idea kept me conflicted as I was reading: is Whitman the great godlike poet? Or is he the every American that he claims to be? For now, all I can surmise is this: he is both. And we are both. The American people has within them every divine thought and empathy that Whitman claims to have; we just haven’t unlocked it yet. That is why we need the Great American Poet, already endowed with this knowledge. Perhaps this is why Whitman claims we no longer need priests. With the poet’s guidance, we are to become our own priests.

For whatever reason, Whitman: one of the roughs, one of the greats, has plenty to teach me yet, and I am quite willing to listen.

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  1. Meghan, I was feeling the same way when I read the introduction and “Song of Myself.” I was troubled by the speaker’s incessant assertion (particularly throughout pg. 9) that the poet is omnipotent, that “he is judgment” (9), that he is powerful etc…when the speaker attempts also to claim that “the others are as good as he” (10). Doesn’t the separation of the poet from the rest of the people through his prophetic eye elevate him from the rest? Also, and I can’t help thinking of Emily Dickinson here, does not the use of “the master” (16) in referring to the poet automatically establish power roles which make it impossible not to believe the poet as superior to the rest of the people?

    As to Whitman’s relationship with his readers, I think that he definitely establishes or attempts to establish a sense of unity among the American people. After reading his brief biography, it seems that this is played out in his life as well as in the poetry and prose here.

  2. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 says:

    Interesting idea of Whitman placed among his readers. My post described how I thought Whitman was putting himself above readers in an authoritative position. However, after reading your post I can definitely see how Whitman does also relate and classify himself as “American”. This fact, which you eloquently discuss, does demonstrate that Whitman wants to connect with all people. Some great ideas in your post!

  3. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    You raise an interesting conundrum. Whitman does seem to elevate the Great American Poet above all others, preventing him from being on equal terms with those who rule or those who serve. Obviously this is a problem faced by any revolutionary, they may lead the people into a golden age but they can never be part of the people they lead. Moses comes to mind, being denied entrance to the promise land.

    This is not so much a problem in stories such as Moses’ because the sacrifice is part of what makes them great leaders. Whitman, however, maintains that every person has the ability to become the Great American Poet. So if everyone becomes the Great American Poet will we then be on a level playing field or will we all be individual and separate, unable to interact as we once did?

  4. Avatar of wordbreaker wordbreaker says:

    Ok, so I might be going off in a bit of a tangent here, but it is most definitely inspired by your post, but I can’t stop thinking of Whitman operating in a liminal space here. The voice he is using in much of the reading is at the same time completely the voice of the god-like poet and the voice of the common American, and because it is both, it is at the same time neither. I think this is where so much of the power in his voice comes from, that he walks this line existing both in the realm of poetic authority and that of the common person, which rhetorically sets him up to be close enough to the reader so that they will sit and listen to him, but far enough separated and lofty that his grand sweeping statements are believable.


  1. MNS: I Give You My Hand » Blog Archive » Dia-mono-(maniacal- bolical)-logic Whitman

    […] and some of you in your blog posts for 9/1 are also struggling with it (e.g., Sam P, Jessica, Ben, Meghan, Erin– you guys really have me thinking).  To wit (NOT twit), how can Whitman be, in my […]

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