September 2009

Because tonight’s discussion ended with attention to Whitman’s emphasis on assimilation in 1867 Leaves (especially in “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing”), it occurred to me that he was probably aware–again, in a way that makes him seem like an alien dropped from a planet of highly advanced thinking into plain ol’ 19th-century America–of how much the war pushed people to assimilate and generalize.  As the country moved from pre- to post-Civil War, not only did our confederacy and notion of relatively distinct states dissolve and (theoretically) become “absorbed” by a more centralized Union, the value of an individual soldier became more difficult to recognize with the mass numbers of volatile deaths.  Especially in “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing,” Whitman seems acutely aware of and almost defeated by the realization that individual humans, the “I”s of the world, are becoming (necessarily? unavoidably?) undervalued.

I recall what Virginia and then Dr. Scanlon were discussing in class, that the Mother in this poem can be either an umbrella-figure mother that represents the shared maternal source (Mother Earth/Nature, perhaps), or it could be every single mother undergoing common but distinct agony for losing a son to the war.  Just as a refresher, or for the benefit of anyone not in our class tonight, here are a couple instances in which Whitman laments assimilation:

“Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried — I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;

And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;”

“My dead absorb — my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb — and their precious, precious, precious blood;”.

We see that, in his angst, the speaker almost becomes subservient to the earth and pleads her to preserve her sons as much as possible, though now all she may be able to do is mix their blood inextricably into her streams.  Blood that, with each echo of its adjective “precious,” becomes more difficult to hold to the very glory the adjective connotes.  Because, as we’ve said, his 1867 tone is so much more resigned to death as a finalizing state than his 1855 tone is, it’s hard to know to what degree he’s really agonizing that America is unsalvageably slipping into an identity so collective it blurs the lines of individual beauties, or to what degree this poetry is his assertive attempt to stop that collective blurring from going any further.  His own syntax is consistently participating in the trend of assimilation (repeating “I”s and “And you”s, to name a couple), and I can’t help but wonder whether he has, since 1855, realized the formal reflection of social disgraces in his poetry, and is, in 1867, being deliberate with his intra-assimilating verse to stress the desensitizing effect the value of “I”, etc. has on the reader and to encourage the reader not to forget the unique loss of separate soldier’s family.  Of course, every time I dare begin to wonder if Whitman was naive about something, I inevitably run into some piece of information that shows he was so much more conscious of his actions and the world than I was ever attentive enough to see.

Thus far, this post has been more or less a reiteration of ideas tossed around in class this evening, so I’ll finally get to what I meant to add earlier: today, when we deal with racism, for instance, it seems that some people’s very immediate reactions are to behave in a color-blind way, a way that denies anyone is different based on their race.  The next basic step in being an informed person, I think, is to realize that denying racial and cultural distinctions can only get you so far, and at some point you must confront the fact that we are diverse individuals and that that should not impede us from cohabitation; in fact, it should enhance our livelihood.  All that seems basic to me in 2009, but in mid-19thC America, where they had only just fought a gory war to make depressingly little social progress, I think it’s downright unbelievably beautiful that Whitman can see assimilation as a bad thing.  That is, if you live in 1860s America, a world even more engrained in hierarchies than now (particularly of race but of many other kinds), and you oppose slavery, assimilation must seem like a huge step forward.  Getting people to want to disregard racial backgrounds would have been nearly impossible, but it’s as if Whitman has already considered that and moved past it to the next level of tolerance: accepting and embracing diversity.

And this doesn’t have to be solely a race thing: obviously in “Pensive” Whitman celebrates not an entire race but the individual life.  I should probably be taking the time to tip my hat to other Romanticists who expressed the value of solipsism, but I don’t think I will right now.  Maybe I’m still reveling in things that do seem to elevate Whitman above other Romanticists, like how his formal poetics show his claims just as effectively as his words do.  Or maybe it’s just that tonight is reserved for Whitman celebration, and I’ll be in awe of some other writer on a non-Tuesday.


All truths wait in all things,

They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,

They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,

The insignificant is as big to me as any,

(What is less or more than a touch?)

Logic and sermons never convince,

The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

Shift From Country to City, Collapse of Relied-upon Systems: Overall Alienations

  • living w/ extended family to living by himself
  • surveillance of small town to looking out for oneself
  • vertical authority (hierarchy, chain-of-command) to horizontal institutions (peers, friends, equals)– absence of people telling you what to do
  • agricultural system (attn to rhythms of nature, systems of time depending on outside world) to factory system (human-made clock, artifice runs life)
  • barter system (close, direct human contact, even in financial dealings) to capitalism (middleman, impersonal)– life less animal/natural, more mechanical/numerical
  • factory’s value of woman’s work over man’s work: suddenly all that matters is how strong you are; nuances of personality less valued

Connecting Alienations to Whitman(‘s Writing)

  • Whitman thought authors should go beyond writing just the words of their book, make books themselves, restore hand-crafting to your own art
  • late 19th C: products start to feature faces of people who make them
    • b/c consumers couldn’t see the faces of manufacturers anymore; way to counteract increasing impersonality
  • Whitman becomes one of first and earliest celebrities
  • Does Whitman’s poetry make him more familiar to the reader or does it do the opposite, objectify the reader?  How does his poetry work to heal the wounds of industrialization?
    • Does his poetry succeed in using adhesiveness as a social glue to restore the kind of interdependence that people had before they moved to the cities?

Characterizations of WW’s Poetic Style

  • long lines
  • ellipses (most in 1855, progressively fewer) –> commas and semicolons, often line-ending
  • scarce periods (makes them more valuable?)
  • asides (parenthetical and otherwise), often personal moments
  • uncontained, sprawling thoughts
  • excessive–breathlessness
  • “his lines, like Whitman’s own persona, are larger than life, too big for space” –mns
    • content not only talks about violation of genitals, but form itself violates space (form mimics function)
  • progressive attempts to (micro)manage, esp. Song of Myself
  • pentimento/palimpsest/”textual unconscious” (Jameson?)
  • heavy use of “ing” verbs, like actions are happening right there
  • use of exclamation (“ah!” “o!”)
  • insistent use of direct-address “you”
  • some poems start in meter, let it go
  • (most popular Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” metrical but WW didn’t like it)
  • anaphora, repetitive beginnings and endings
  • gutsy sexual writing cost him finances, reputation, etc. (point: writing this sexually explicit wouldn’t have been accepted everywhere)
  • “true” WW happens later when interest in gay WW becomes powerful, seeing him as early gay icon– “Here the Frailest Leaves of Me” (283)
    • homosocial vs. eroticized
  • **The excuses Reynolds gives do not hold up; more to it than passionate friendship.**
  • 2 eagles mating in midair– subject of one of WW’s most controversial poems
    • people didn’t notice when he described men as sexy, but heterosexuality among animals was scandalized

What was Whitman’s conception of literature at the time he was writing?  Who were his influences?  What did he consider standard literature?  amazing literature?  How radical did he think he was being, and how important was that to him?

I ask these questions because I have a tendency to read too minutely into the form of any poetry, and even after I’ve realized where I’ve gone astray, I still want the form to mean something.  Tonight’s brainstorming of ways to characterize Whitman’s poetic style was satisfying, and I was glad to learn that he is especially thoughtful in his form.  I’m still wondering to what degree we can continue analyzing Whitman’s form when it shows little variation.  In other words, does he eventually vary his style to match different poems, or does he have one style that suits all his work?

I sit here fighting the crash that must follow my caffeine high because I refuse go to bed (to gear up for my 6 a.m. shift tomorrow morning) without riffing a little more on why Whitman is a superior but equal-opportunity-believing poet. As soon as I suggested that Whitman was more democratic than T. S. Eliot because the former relies more on the reader, I realized someone could easily throw the latter poet’s “Let us go then, you and I” (if not other quotes) in my face.

To clarify something I was thinking and others may already be thinking anyway, Whitman’s reliance on the reader is, I think, less in-your-face than Eliot (or other you-employing writers), which is really liberating as well as creepy and probably contrived. While I have minimal experience with any literature before Romanticism, my very vague and generalized sense of earlier literature is that it had strict forms (the many kinds of sonnets, villanelles, limericks, whatever) and, I think, those forms ended up doing a lot of work for the reader. Often there was a “right way(s)” to view that literature; the meaning you could/should derive was less open-ended. A simple connection is that the forms of poems (and plays and essays and early novels) echoed the way in which codes of conduct (religious, governmental, social) were already set for the average citizen, who was expected to be docile and passive and follow those codes. Note: I’m NOT trying to say that reading pre-Romantic lit is a passive or easy activity! (I certainly don’t have the authority to say so.) I’m merely suggesting that order was more or less blindly enforced and adhered to until the 18th/19th century (or so) when we see a bunch of social, political, religious, literary, etc. revolutions.

And, in more vague and possibly timeless terms, around the time we now view as the emergence of Romanticism, people were, in great numbers, questioning what was formerly unquestioned. As Christians were starting to believe that they could find God in active ways (exploring nature, raising a child) as opposed to strictly in church or in the Bible, Whitman, among other authors, fell in line with that trend and compelled readers to do it with his literature. He says in Democratic Vistas, “ . . . the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does” (1017, my emphasis).

I had a lot of trouble getting a good grade on a paper on Twelfth Night once, and my diehard-Shakespeare-fan roommate insisted that it was because I see literature as something that doesn’t have to depend on authorial intent, as long as the reader forges some meaningful understanding, but with Shakespeare (and others of his time), that was a lot more valued than perhaps it has been since then.

With that in mind, I’m seeing Whitman as possibly setting the stage for this “gymnast” (1016) reader he references. In the aforementioned 1017 quote, he outright says the literature you read isn’t the be-all-end-all– it just isn’t that monolithic or cut-and-dry. The reader her/himself is the one vested with the power, and to some extent, responsibility, to create meaning. It’s the same worn-out question of if a tree falls in a forest with no people to hear it, does it make a sound? Whitman can write the most brilliant stuff in the world, but what is it worth if we don’t sit here analyzing (or agonizing over) it? He becomes a genius by prompting us to have these discussions, discussions that at times center around him as a person, and at times push us to go in myriad fascinating directions.

So, the fact that Whitman claims the literature itself is less important than the reader’s subsequent thoughts and actions both enables us to find/create the unprecedented American identity, AND it creepily retains the title as impetus for such discoveries/creations. Maybe it even compels us to say, “What are you talking about, Whitman? Of course your books are magnificent and more powerful than my measly thoughts.” I think that duality (multiplicity . . . ) makes him use the reader in a unique way. I love T. S. Eliot, I really do, but he almost pales in comparison when he says, “Let us go then, you and I.” It’s like, thanks, dude, you recognize I as a reader exist and then string me along to these really stress-inducing streets, when Whitman places his own text secondary to any impending thoughts or actions of my own. I just can’t stop thinking about how Whitman’s statement simultaneously opens up these huge avenues of possibility for ANY reader of his work (how democratic!) and places himself as a part of all I do, say, and think (how Big Brother!). (And how brilliant.)