Whatever else Song of Myself might be, it is — first and foremost — a gorgeous performance in self-irony. It’s a great big turbulent poem that unpoems itself.
What’s the sound of one verse clapping?
Easy, it’s the great American koan. You can quote me on that.
Song of Myself creates a vision of the world as it destroys the condition of its own possibility.
Drop the Kantian language and the situation is this.
If you were to model your behavior on the pursuits, trades, and activities that are represented in Song of Myself, you would skin a carcass, build a house, and go panning for gold. You would dance, laugh, and sing at a bar. You would sail on dangerous waters and climb Colorado’s 14ers. You would plow a field and even smell your own arm pits with pure, unmitigated delight. You would do just about everything in the world.
Except read a book or put words and meanings on pages.
No, you wouldn’t be a poet nor a novelist, nor a reader of poems or novels, or texts in general. At best, you’d have moments of meditative silence, like:
The youth [who] lies awake in the cedar-roof’d garret and harks
to the musical rain…
Or engage in other contemplative acts, where the world itself, its grasses and sedges, its river banks and woods, becomes the thing to be read and interpreted, a hieroglyphic in a baffling language:
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
Yes, you’ll read the original productions of nature but not the products deriving from the minds of men and women who write sentences and turn them around. Open your eyes to the world and close your book! That’s the great enduring lesson of Song of Myself.
A morning-glory at my windows satisfies me more than the
metaphysics of books.
Of course, this makes matters a little awkward for Whitman. I mean, he can urge us all he wants to close our books. But in order for him to have is way with us, we have to open at least one book. His poems. He can only address us from his leaves of grass. That’s where his spectre is. It doesn’t reside atop Half Dome, as solid and magnificent and immediate as that granitic chunk of reality is.
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Sorry, Walt. I will take things at second-hand (not third, no, I’m a hygienic bloke after all). I’m listening to you, aren’t I? I will look through the eyes of the dead, gratefully. I will feed on the spectres in books, hungrily. And I will listen to all sides and filter them from my self, in part because you’ve taught me how, through your splendid and irresistible example.
So, thank you for teaching me how to read poems and books even as you implore me not to.
That is, thank you for your great American koan.