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.