Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman

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.

11 Responses to Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman

  1. Dear Kevin,

    Listening, awaiting more. I sense your enthusiasm. I have a bit of a glimpse of a cause. But I enjoy what I read here more than what I read when I open Whitman. Hope to change that!



  2. A poet, trained in close reading, has told me that she once had enormous trouble with Whitman – he defeated New Criticism. All of those lists! It’s just more, more, more.

    She had to sort of abandon her training to read him.

    • Which is probably no bad thing. When it comes to theory, I think the thing to recognise is that no one theory can account for all. If one theory did, after all, no-one could come up with another … but they keep on doing so don’t they? A bit of Reader Response, a bit of New Criticism, and so on … in other words, read for yourself, as Kevin clearly does!

    • According to New Criticism, what’s so objectionable about lists?

      • According to New Criticism – well, that’s beyond my knowledge! But I don’t think the New Critics were so good with sprawl. They liked tight little self-contained structures. No history, no society, nothing outside the poem.

        Lists sprawl, they reach outside the poem. Whitman is going to drag the whole world into his poem!

        Although it’s not just reach, since my impression is that the original New Critics, at least, had little use for Wallace Stevens, who also did not fit whatever they were doing.

        As whisering gums says, we’re not theorists, so we have no stake in having one method do everything. And people certainly have approached Whitman with close reading methods. They just don’t work the same way as they do with John Donne.

  3. “…nothing outside the poem.”

    Well, that’s just perverse. The semantic properties of words and sentences are at least in part a function of the world to which they refer “outside the poem.”

    And what’s more conventional than language?

    Anyhow, thanks.


  4. Fiona Bell says:

    Hi Kevin and friends, a great discussion above as always!

    New Criticism has had a lasting legacy (and underpins much current theory). I had to study it in my undergrad and postgrad English lit degrees and it still maintains some very staunch supporters who believe that close reading is the key to literary criticism and that the author’s intentions are not to be considered, nor the historical context etc. Just the work itself. It is not even a “death of the author” Roland Barthes style argument, but a very formalist way of examining the literary devices used in the text.

    Someone taking this approach wouldn’t necessarily ignore Whitman and his lists, but they wouldn’t contextualise his work within it’s national paradigm, historical setting etc. They certainly wouldn’t care if he was a homosexual or not, who his influences were, or what was excluded from the list.

    I have never understood the merit of this approach as a stand alone concept. It works really well when combined with a contextualised analysis of an author and their work. How can you take Whitman out of his historical moment and only examine his use of metaphors, alliteration, assonance etc.? Can a work ever stand alone without any context?

    For me, (a theorist in training), the best criticism contains both a close reading for style, devices etc. and historical/social/political contextualisation.

    • Hi Fiona, thanks for the helpful comment. It seems that the New Critics want a novel or a poem to be one kind of thing, namely, a textual artifact that just happens to be there. But it seems to me that a book has many uses and ends toward which we can put it. Just last night I used Revolutionary Road as a head support. Then this morning, I used it as story to be read with enjoyment, and right now, I’m using it as an example, etc. Anyhow, I know nothing. I think all methods and styles of reading are good so long as they’re insightful. Many cheers, Kevin

    • Agree entirely Fiona. I like close reading, but as with most things, don’t see it as a stand-alone concept at all. And, sometimes the balance of what you apply varies too doesn’t it? For some authors, for example, the historical context is highly significant whereas for others it might be the vaguest background only.

  5. Fiona Bell says:

    Ahhhhh the voice of reason as always Kevin, where were you in my undergad years to steer me in the right direction regarding theory and book uses! 😉

  6. […] Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. As I said in a comment to Karyn on her very fine blog, Whitman’s poetry is so grand I don’t care if it’s verse and not prose fiction. It can even be termed statistics for all I care. […]

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