Song of Myself is both perspicuous and opaque. That is, it sees very clearly in one eye, but is very nearly blind in the other. Whitman’s great poem is, among many other things, a long list of people and their doings. Its denizens include:
A baby in a cradle, a suicide, a policeman
A fireman, boatmen, a runaway slave, and a trapper
A butcher-boy, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a pilot
First mates, a duck-shooter, a farmer, and a lunatic
A surgeon, a machinist, a conductor, a canal boy, a coalman
A chemist, a mathematician, and a geologist
A judge, a physician and a priest, among many others
The remarkable profusion of verbs that relate these selves to the world is enough to make my legs cramp, just thinking about them. They start off relaxingly enough:
Leaning and loafing
Seeing, hearing, feeling, and listening
Waiting and witnessing
But very quickly they develop an unmistakable athleticism.
Bathing, swimming, dancing
Drinking, laughing, and singing
Hunting, wandering, ascending
Weeding, prospecting, and voyaging
And of course there’s the central activity of the poem, the main “doing,” toward which the poem as a whole tends, namely:
Absorbing, incorporating, and enclosing
Now, here’s what I find utterly amazing. Not once in Whitman’s gorgeous litany of people and their doings do we catch sight of the poet. Not even a glimpse. You’ll find a prostitute, an opium eater, and even a venerealee. But you won’t find a poet at his workbench cobbling together words and sentences, forging images and meanings, and creating the very vision that enables us to see so much in the first place.
In Song of Myself, there’s no observing the observer.