Here’s the cliche (maxim/adage/saying/whatever) running through my mind while reading Reynolds’ article and relating it to this week’s questions: blessing in disguise. Reynolds’ reminds us that even though the Civil War was horrible, many good things came of it; things that Walt Whitman, being the saucy prophet he is, desired and foresaw with a sense of optimism. Perhaps better than my lame cliche is Reynolds little golden nugget at the very beginning of My Book and War Are One: “[The Civil War] cleared the atmosphere like a thunderstorm” (413). Whitman might have changed stylistically, but no amount of darkness can fully smother his brightness; even within the gloomy Drum Taps there remains glimmers of Whitman’s optimism.
Reading Drum Taps there were two poems in particular that seemed non sequitur to me, City of Ships and Give Me the Splendid Sun. Next to these two poems I have scribbled excitedly “old school Walt” in pencil, feeling refreshed by the return of “O”s, exclamation marks, repetition, and lines like, “O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!” (447). Even surrounded by death and violence, Whitman continues to muse about all the differing beauties between nature and the city. It’s almost as if these poems are his own personal escape, his “me” time, if you will. Some times he even takes a breather within the same poem, some of his more macabre poems contain their own, small “old school Walt” moments. For instance, in The Wound-Dresser, there are intermittent intermissions amongst the strenuous listing of a nurse’s duty to proclaim, “O maidens and young men I love and love me” (443), and then closes the poem with this sentiment, “(many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips)” (445). No matter the circumstance, Walt always seems to make time to appreciate the men around him… especially when they’re dusty.
Walt Whitman was a lover, not a fighter (I’m full of cliches today!); his passion for the masculine form and sensuality may not be as raw and zealous as it is in 1855, but it is undoubtedly present in Drum Taps. My personal favorite man-crush moment takes place within a set of parenthesis in First O Songs for a Prelude: “how good they look as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with their guns on their shoulders!” (417). Here, also, is where he first divulges his minor dust fetish. All dust aside, these brief sensual and/or loving moments serve as a glimpse into momentary humanizing instances, however short-lived or fleeting or perhaps mentally constructed they might have been. There is also that sense perhaps Walt might have optimistically said to himself one day while watching sweaty, dusty men march past, “well, war is awful and I’m exhausted… but check out those hotties!”
I’m half kidding, of course.
Whitman seems to take war, digest it, and spit it back out optimistically. Reynolds comments that Whitman was such a unique war poet because he did not often express partisanship. To avoid partisanship in any war, let alone the Civil War, is difficult for the author and frustrating to readers. However, more important to Whitman than politics was the “big picture” and his role in putting the pieces of America together (explaining why he was so enamored with Lincoln). The Civil War provided a force that could have never been generated by one man or one book of poems, and Whitman seems pleased to simply be a part of the progress. Even the most sorrowful times, Whitman’s songs remain triumphant.
Posting now, immediately following our Fredericksburg field trip, while everything is fresh and easily flowing from my fingertips.
Our first stop was the battle ground on Sunken Rd, which was the site of an extremely bloody massacre of Union soldiers. The geography of Marye Heights gave the Confederates at easy victory, despite the fact the Union had more troops and had been stationed in Fredericksburg longer. However, none of this is really that interesting, lets be honest. Far more interesting was the wedding party taking photographs nearby as we commented on their ironic existence in the space. Where thousands upon thousands of men were killed 150 years ago, now hosted a group of well dressed young adults smiling, laughing, and embarking on new life. I believe it was Professor Brady who made the Whitman reference saying something like, “how Whitmanic, new life springing from a place of death.” Then later, Professor Groom alluded to “This Compost!” The foul meat that perhaps remained beneath the shiny leather shoes and high heels of the wedding party, reminding us that the Earth, “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”
Chatham House, formerly known as The Lacy House, was our next stop. This was where Whitman spent time nursing wounded soldiers. The house is beautiful, though one room was painted in an off-putting Pepto Bismal pink color, and the grounds surrounding the property are perfectly manicured and stunning. Again, the irony played within my mind. Where hospital tents had stood before, now grows flowers and grape vines. We watched the informational DVD on a flat screen TV in the room that had formerly been the amputation room. The chasm between the past in the present seems alienating and inescapable. However, there was a specific moment when that chasm was bridged (perhaps like the pontoon bridge built by the Federals over the Rappahannock?), and when we all experienced something tangible in 2009 that Whitman experienced in the 1860s.
Still standing outside the Chatham house are the two tangled Catalpa trees where Whitman saw a pile of amputated limbs. The trees are directly outside the windows of the amputation room. Our tour guide was kind enough to read Whitman’ words about the trees. It seemed a sobering moment for everyone as we all realized that this was the “closest” we have been to Whitman so far; we connected his words to our physical surroundings. After this moment, I found myself looking around with new eyes, wondering if Washington, Lincoln, and of course Whitman, looked over the Rappahannock River and Fredericksburg as I was at the same time of day, on the same day of the year, many years ago. Maybe that’s nerdy… but we were all a little bit nerdy today.
I promise I will address the topic at hand this week, but first I must briefly continue the discourse from last week concerning Whitman’s stylistic (and personal?) change by cause of the war. Please excuse me as I quote at great length from The Better Angel:
“One of the marks of any great writer is adaptability, and Whitman, after a few short days in camp among the young Northern soldiers, had already begun to grasp that his old enthusiastic style of writing was sadly unsuited for capturing the grim realities of their war. A new approach was needed, one that reflected more accurately the soldiers’ homespun ways and quiet courage. With his great gift for mimicry, Whitman would write poems that spoke in the drawling voices of the men themselves, in accents he first heard around the campfires at Fredericksburg. This was a new way of writing, not just for Whitman but for American literature in general, and its importance can be scarcely overstated” (61).
Wow. Where was Roy Morris last week? I cannot even attempt to disagree with anything in this quotation. Morris reiterates Whitman’s unique, almost alien, existence in the 19th century, creating something new, beautiful, and inconceivable all at the same time. My passion for Whitman is renewed; my image of him as a raw, brilliant, zealous, slightly obsessive artist lives on. *sigh of relief*
Okay, enough of that.
What I found most interesting about this week’s reading regarding documenting the war were the many parallels I could make to photography (a topic I now know much more about, thank you very much, Matthew Brady). Both the photographer and poet desire to document an experience rather than a statistic; both attempt to create an image (the photographer more obviously); both want to make something “real.” However, quite sadly, neither the photographer nor the poet will ever create that whole image, they struggle against the same infinite limitations of the tangible realm. Neither the poet nor the photographer can bottle up the scents of gunpowder and sweat, or contain the bursting, violent sounds of battle, or articulate the energy that surrounds them or the taste of the air that fills their mouth with each anxious breath. It cannot be done, by anyone, ever. Life is ephemeral, and for the artist that really freaking sucks.
This artistic frustration could lead to artistic surrender or artistic insatiability, and with Whitman I believe it’s the latter. Why would Whitman keep both an extensive journal, Specimen Days, and write dozens of poems, Drum Taps, if not to make every effort to wholly document the experience? With Specimen Days, Whitman shows us snapshots, gives us names, places, and dates, and a detailed account of both ordinary camp life and the chaotic buzz of the hospital. There is so much information in Specimen Days it’s hard to believe that the poems included in Drum Taps are not redundant. His poems voice the metaphysical, the intangible, the vague sensations that swim around our minds invisibly. I’m not a psychology major, but it seems as though Whitman uses two different parts of his brain to write his journal entries and his poems. Though some segments of his prose are equally as eloquent as his poetry, his poetry contains the energy of those little “lightening bolt” or “light bulb” moments that happen the moment a dream comes to an end. For instance, in the closing lines of “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” the speaker compares the face of a dead soldier to that of Christ– a blasphemous claim made without apology. Never in Specimen Days is there such a bold metaphor, not even when Whitman talks about Abraham Lincoln (side note: how creepy was the part of Morris’ article when he revealed that Whitman was planning to write a fake dialogue between himself and Lincoln?!). With these two different documenting methods, Whitman does not attempt to reach different audiences, but the same audience in different ways.
To answer the question of “will the real war ever get in the books,” the answer for myself and Whitman is a resounding, thwarted NO. However, Whitman succeeds in giving feeling and “reality” to an occurrence, which might have otherwise been smothered with numbers and facts. Humanity lies within the details, the idiosyncrasies, the peccadilloes and simple joys, the little ice cream treats that a grey-bearded poet brings to wounded soldiers. Whitman lends the reader his own personal experience of the Civil War, and though it does not nearly encompass everything, it is sufficient.
I believe it was Dr. Scanlon who used the phrase “micro-manage” to describe Whitman’s poetic shift after 1855. If it’s okay with you, Dr. Scanlon, I’m going to run with this idea. In the 1855 edition of Leaves, as we have discussed in class, there is hardly any opportunity to stop and catch your breath; but with the later editions, we see numbered sections and an influx of definite punctuation. Though Whitman’s proclivity for making feverish lists and bold proclamations never fully dies, his micro-managing of himself causes the passionate affect within the text to fade away.
One’s-Self I Sing serves as a perfect example of Whitman’s micro-managing. After reading the verbose, lengthy, vibrant, omniscient 1855 edition Song of Myself, One’s Self I Sing, which kicks off the 1867 edition, seems dull, didactic, and flavorless. Whitman makes his point too easily accessible to the reader, it’s almost too straightforward. Where is the the infinite regression we have come to know and love? For instance, this line, “my Days I sing, and the Lands,” 1855 Walt Whitman would have followed up with a detailed account of exactly what kind of days and in the specific places they occur (and we would have respectfully skimmed through the long listing of American states and towns). Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, he does follow up with a classically Whitmanic “O” exclamation:
O friend, whoe’er you are, at last arriving hither to com-
mence, I feel through every leaf the pressure of
your hand, which I return. And thus upon our
journey link’d together let us go .
Here, the 1855 Whitman shows himself– he reveals the connection between self, other, and nature eloquently and in a way that makes the reader stop and re-read. However, in the further edited version of this poem (1871), this verse is cut out completely, instead replaced by this bit:
Of life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
Despite his use of the words “passion” and “power,” this final impression is neither passionate nor powerful. The word “Modern” seems clumsy and awkward, too sterile to come from the man who wrote, “where the hummingbird shimmers… where the neck of the longlived swan swan is curving and winding” (61) in the 1855 Song of Myself. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but I don’t want Whitman to sing of “The Modern Man,” or of “The New World,” I much prefer to read about grass and sex and the soul, or all three at once. My personal preferences aside, however, this shows a certain shift in Whitman’s view of the world, which can only be explained by his experiences in The Civil War.
Luke Mancuso mentions in his article that the 1867 edition was the first to open up with an inscription that introduces the reader to the work and what to expect from it, almost like an abstract. The longer poems within this edition are divided up into numbered, digestible sections, so that the reader may flip ahead and predetermine exactly how much (or how little) they are willing to commit. Opening up the 1855 edition, on the other hand, is like stepping into a puddle when you’re not quite sure how deep it is. Perhaps it was all the chaos that surrounded Whitman during the war that caused him to crave organization and predictability within his own writing, or maybe he became accustomed to the military highly regimented order, but whatever it was, it’s evident that the war impacted Whitman as a person and as a poet.
I can and will easily look this up, but I’m curious about Whitman’s actual love life. Did he find “The One”? Did he have a long term relationship? Or just a series of flings and sort-lived romances?
I feel like this information would illuminate a lot from Calamus and Adam, and add a new level of intimacy and connection to The Man himself.
In his letter to Emerson, Whitman addresses the “infidelism” concerning sex in America. He explains to Emerson that the body and sex, just like everything else (in typical Whitman fashion, he rambles off a long list), deserves to be expressed and sung about. While Whitman could have stopped there, he instead includes a profound little zinger to conclude his thoughts on sex: “the courageous soul, for a year or two to come, may be proved by faith in sex, and by disdaining concessions” (1359). Here, Whitman presents his argument. Throughout the highly sensualist Children of Adam and Calamus, Whitman is not just trying to shock his 19th century audience (though he most certainly did), he was revealing a part of the human soul that had yet to be revealed in poetry at length and in detail.
In two separate poems (From Pent-up Aching Rivers, and One Hour to Madness and Joy), Whitman uses the phrase “mystic deliria” to describe sex. In other words, Whitman likens sex to an otherworldly, perhaps metaphysical, lapse in sanity. It’s not much of a jump from “mystic deliria” to “disdaining concessions,” Whitman describes sex as a dropping of pretense, disengaging the societal “face” we all put on and assuming our raw, animal one. The speaker of Are You The New Person Drawn Toward Me, challenges a potential lover with this question, “do you see no further than this facade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?” What lies beneath the facade, the core identity of a person, is what the speaker wants his/her lover to see. Much like sex itself, Whitman’s poetry celebrates and appreciates the body, recounting nearly every part, but actually divulges something much more significant than bones and freckles. With sex, there is a mingling of the physical and metaphysical, the soul is exposed through the tangible: “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul” (258). Along with how the soul is explored through sex, Whitman even more frequently describes how the body and soul yearns and craves sex.
Words like “aching,” “consuming,” and “burning” appear multiple times throughout Children of Adam and Calamus. These poems are dripping with yearning, and what is more indicative of the human condition than yearning? The speaker of Whitman’s poems is more than just horny, though that could easily be argued, he expresses an insatiable desire to connect and to know other humans, both men and women. In the short and simple I Am He that Aches with Love, the speaker compares his/her desire to attract and connect with others to a gravitational force– something powerful and natural. The urge to love another, to mingle with a soul that complements our own, is inherent to our being and therefore a vital part of the human soul. Not Heat Flames up and Consumes explores the soul’s tenacious search to find true connection, Whitman likens it to a tide that is constantly moving. From its very beginning, the soul searches for love: “any more than my soul is borne through the open air, wafted in all directions O love, for friendship, for you” (278). The body yearns, yes, but the soul yearns first and more deeply.
“The quadroon girl is sold at the stand…. ” (39).
Quadroon: Someone of 1/4 Black ancestry. A term used in The South during the 19th century. This was during the time of Jim Crow laws and the “one drop” rule, in which anyone with any amount of Black ancestry was considered Black.
Jade, from America’s Next Top Model, had a biracial father and would have technically been defined as a “quadroon” in the 19th century. Now, she is considered a crazy, dramatic, whacko who totally made cycle 6 worth watching!
Whitman reveals through his poetry a certain fascination with the relationship between the part to the whole. He meanders through ideas questioning the authority of the whole over its parts, or whether the parts control the whole, and the intricate, inseparable mingling of many pieces joining together to form one “big picture.” With this, Whitman illustrates America. He describes the man, the buildings, the city, the state, the nation, the world, and the universe (though not always in that order), and, in doing so, paints the image of a nation that is diverse in its parts and cohesive as a whole.
In more than one poem, though “Song of The Open Road” most notably, Whitman urges his reader to go out and explore America. He boasts of America like it is a secret vacation destination that only celebrities know about: “Listen! I will be honest with you, I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.” It’s almost as if he is saying, “why go to dilapidated Rome or dingy Athens, when you could go explore something that few people have ever seen before?” America is such a gem, in fact, that only the best and brightest should be allowed in: “only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies, no diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.” Despite this statement, Whitman is not an elitist, he praises the farmer, the lumberjack, the soldiers, the common man, because these make up the “rough new prizes” that America has to offer. America is begging to be experienced, to be discovered and cherished, and Whitman is using his poetry as a soap-box to proclaim this fact. There is more to Whitman’s message than just traveling and sight-seeing; he yearns for each reader to realize that there is so much more to know than our small, individual spheres of influence : “to know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for travelling souls.” There is so much more than the several hundred faces we have memorized, or the many paths we have mapped out, or the countless schemas implanted in our brains. As much as we may think we know, there is always infinitely more. Whitman humbly suggests that we each make some sort of attempt to know more, to experience more, even if it is just one infinitesimal part of a gigantic whole.
Whitman sees the people of America as the colorful specks that make up a beautiful Monet painting. Each speck would appear meaningless on its own, but plays a vital role in creating the entire composition. Whitman states this outright in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” when he comments that great people are what makes a great city: “a great city is that which has the greatest men and women, if it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.” The buildings are secondary, according to Whitman, which perhaps explains why he describes the “landscape” of Manhattan and of Kentucky with the same fervor. There is debate about whether Whitman is a “city” poet or a “nature” poet, well I argue that he is a “people” poet. “Song of Occupations” alone could testify to that. Whitman worships Man, not God, and time and time again in his poetry emphasizes that it is common man that makes America a great nation: “where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay” (355). To Whitman, America is not a flag or a figure head, but a vibrant collection of souls and life.
What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever…
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
What makes Whitman’s “Song of Myself” so jarring has nothing to do with his poetic syntax or clever word choice; what makes this poem worth reading, not just reading but consuming, is the insatiable life that emanates from it. The speaker of “Song of Myself” cannot be defined, touched, or contained. Never passive, utterly present, biting, and passionate, there is no “speaker” of this epic poem, but rather a bright, powerful force that drives it. This force encompasses the diversity of all mankind and also the multitudes that lie within one human being. It holds every occupation, contains every race, every emotion, every urge, and then some. The poem meanders, contradicts itself, inserts random thoughts as if occurring immediately, and yet still takes the time to expend lengthy, organized lists. Much like the force that delegates our own lives, the force that drives “Song of Myself” cannot be conquered or predicted.
Despite my assertion that the speaker is not a “person,” the first person is employed in the poem; “Me” and “I” are all over the place. This “Me” constantly defines itself as well as any other thing that could ever be defined. It proclaims: “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; they do not know how immortal, but I know.” There is no pretense here, the “Me” admits readily its omniscient presence, but does so humbly by asserting that “Me” is the, “commonest and cheapest.” With this, the speaker is both God and Man, the most profound of all contradictions. But who cares? “Me” certainly doesn’t. In fact, the concluding thoughts address this issue, and quite proudly so: “do I contradict myself? Very well then…. I contradict myself; I am large…. I contain multitudes.” There is no sense in analyzing these contradictions, in trying to connect them to some sort of underlying theme, because each thought exists independently, each from its own organic moment, and if one happens to contradict another… oh well.
As both God and Man, the speaker, the force, the “Me,” shares with equally intimacy memories of personal experience, memories of foreign lands and foreign times, and memories of the Earth as a whole. There are thoughts of slaves, mechanics, farmers lovers, and other real, observable things. Seamlessly, however, there are also thoughts of brahmins, llamas, ancient Gods, the sun, the sky, the Earth, and the unknowable. And yet, despite these countless thoughts, the force declares there is so much more to know: “a few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span, or make it impatient, they are but parts…. any thing is but a part.” Though “Me” appears to be limitless, it acknowledges its own limitations.
“Song of Myself,” as a work, mirrors the life that speaks through it. This poem is large, it does contain multitudes. More important and more striking, though, is how alive it is. How wonderful would it be to live in this poem? To exist in a world of such passion and beauty and feeling. Perhaps what makes Whitman so enviable is not his incredible talent, but that he did exist in such a world.