Allison For Sept. 22

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.

  1. Avatar of cirvine1965

    #1 by cirvine1965 on September 20, 2009 - 9:50 pm

    It’s funny, the first time I read “Song of Myself” I thought it was maybe a little overly complicated and extraneous. I’d skim through the lines and lines of towns and states and get caught up in the twisting metaphors and descriptions. But after getting used to reading about, “grass and sex and the soul” I too found the 1867 version to be a bit tame. I guess the grass is always greener.

  2. Avatar of tallersam

    #2 by tallersam on September 21, 2009 - 7:16 pm

    This could be out in left field, but the difference between the 1855 opener and the 1867 opener brought to mind the difference between a pre-internet newspaper article and a modern newspaper article.
    The majority of articles written these days are shorter and more concise so that people used to sound bytes won’t lose interest; however, writers of previous decades not so worried about people only devoting five seconds to their article could ramble less self-consciously.
    Perhaps Whitman was worried, post-war, that people whose lives had been upset by a brutal war would be less willing to open a book and read a 50+ page poem extolling virtues and ideas that had (at least temporarily) fallen by the wayside for a few years.
    As well, there is the shift from “celebrating myself” to “not ceasing at the theme of One’s-Self”: people were probably less immediately willing to bear with an ego like that.
    If he did not adapt to the times, Whitman might have lost the audience that he craved for his ideas.

  3. Avatar of tallersam

    #3 by tallersam on September 21, 2009 - 7:32 pm

    I’m sorry, I kind of lost another one of my points. Namely, that I think Whitman was always didactic. I mean, “Song of Myself” is pretty preachy in no small number of parts, in addition to (or even through) its more nature-oriented passages. What the collective experiences of the war meant was that a change in method was in order for Whitman. The divisions of the poems do allow the reader to determine how much (or little) they want to jump into Whitman’s world, but was it an infatuation with regimented military life? I think that Whitman probably recognized that people were simply less willing to make blind jumps in 1867 than they might have been in 1855.

  4. Avatar of meghanedwards

    #4 by meghanedwards on September 21, 2009 - 8:00 pm

    “Song of Myself” drove me crazy the first time I read it; I remember wanting to give Whitman a talking to. I agree with you, though. This version seems too too–tidy. Whitman seems to have divided and subdivided everything to the point that it loses its original wildness and feel. I wonder if the “Modern Man” bit is tying together a central theme, as if Whitman is trying to bring everything full circle? But that too, feels so tame that it’s unnatural. But then, I can’t blame him. The nation he loved was so disorganized, that he must have had to take the one thing he had, and “micromanage” it the best he could, hoping that his readers would listen to their poet-prophet reflect that image.

  5. Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    #5 by Mara Scanlon on September 22, 2009 - 9:59 am

    Both you and Virginia raise some interesting points this week about the reader’s relationship to the poem, and I’m fascinated by the shifts in language you’ve both made. A week or so ago, the reader was being brow-beaten, seduced, called out. Now the reader is being allowed to “predetermine exactly how much (or how little) they are willing to commit” in your post, and in Virginia’s, the discourse is of commodity and marketing of the book to the impatient reader.

  6. Avatar of Erin Longbottom

    #6 by Erin Longbottom on September 22, 2009 - 12:22 pm

    Kind of going with Sam’s comment, I find the concept that Whitman changed his poems with the times to be really interesting. Most poets just write new poems, instead of reworking their old poetry to cater to current society.
    Perhaps these revisions reflect what Whitman saw developing in America; a more structured society, things falling into place, especially after the chaos of the civil war, and then being followed by the reconstruction period. Whitman saw a nation reworking itself, and so he translated this to his poetry.

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