August 30, 2009

Ben’s First Crazy Response to Whitman

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 8:33 pm

There is a long-standing tradition in literary criticism that one should never assume that the voice something is written in is inherently the voice of the author or poet.  That the writer always creates a persona through which he or she writes his or her work and although the speaker may claim that he and the poet are one in the same, this is almost never completely the case.  In reading Leaves of Grass then, the question arises of who is the speaker?  Certainly, the speaker claims that he is Whitman himself but some of the language leads to something more expansive then the just the man.  Indeed the ‘I’ and ‘you’ in the text are nothing more than constructs as Whitman is not, at this moment, hovering over my shoulder, whispering poetry in my ear as I type at my computer.  Sadly, my muses tend not to be nearly as famous as him. 

I propose then, that the Whitman the reader interacts with in the text of Leaves of Grass is a speaker that is best defined as “Whitman-as-Prophet”.  This is working off of an inherent dichotomy set up in any bit of literature that intends to bring an audience, the “you” of the poem, any great revelation.  The first side of this dichotomy is that of the witness.  The ‘poet-as-witness’ comes to some epiphany and wishes to show it to his audience by way of taking them on the journey to where they got this information, explaining every step and leading the now fellow journeyer to the same revelation.  Opposite this is the ‘poet-as-prophet’.  The prophet is so full of his wonderful new information that the process of how he or she found it no longer matters, what matters is what they have seen, what they know, and now the want to tell you about it.  The journey does not matter, only the enlightenment.

It is within this ‘Poet-as-prophet’ voice that Leaves of Grass gets it’s insane full-out charge energy.  The Whitman speaker has seen everything and knows not his place within all of it, but has some ideas and all this new insight is just too massive to hold inside any longer.  This is the type of speaker where one half expects him to jump out of his bathtub, scream ‘Eureka’ and run around town naked because his discoveries are just that big.  Indeed it takes twenty pages of poetry, not even counting the introduction for him to list his name.  Even the title page of the original version didn’t have a name, just an image and it is not the image of the stern poet but rather one more akin to a voice of one crying in the wilderness, coming down from the mountains reeking of locusts and honey, and just daring the reader with his glance to call him out on it.  Then after the Speaker-Whitman gives his name and critique on himself, he follows it with “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”  which, in a reading of the voice as prophetic is a shout to deny the definition on the poet of the name he has just provided.  As doors enclose, so does, in the case the name, and Whitman cannot be the prophet he is trying to be without the inherent separation into this prophetic voice.

4 responses to “Ben’s First Crazy Response to Whitman”

  1. Ben, I think your interpretation here is on the money, though I feel myself inclined to believe that Whitman is pushing the ‘poet-as-prophet’ voice without actually knowing yet what that entails or how he can enact it. Whitman’s inability at times to come to a conclusive end in his thoughts and ideas unfortunately creates holes within his beautifully eloquent arguments, thereby making him less of a divinely inspired being than he would perhaps like to be. I do however believe that Whitman is on the verge of some sort of inspired stance which could grant him a true prophetic voice despite his discoveries being, as of yet, half-baked. As you point out, Whitman is unsure of his place in the grand scheme of things but sometimes I feel he is trying to be more definitive than he actually is. For me, it seems that Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself” are Whitman’s commencement into another journey that does matter – the one that will make sense of this new enlightenment.

  2. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I wonder… who exactly are your less-than-famous muses, Ben? :-)
    I like how you explain the lack of an author’s name in this edition of “Leaves.” In order to become the “poet of America,” the “poet-as-prophet” has to leave behind that which would separate him from others, which would be his name. Remind you of a certain, officer-hating character from last semester’s Dostoyevsky readings? However, it seems like you’re saying that “Whitman-as-prophet” is all “prophet” and no “witness.” Is that a mistake on my part? After all, some would say that the journey itself is the enlightenment.

  3. […] lens, and some of you in your blog posts for 9/1 are also struggling with it (e.g., Sam P, Jessica, Ben, Meghan, Erin– you guys really have me thinking).  To wit (NOT twit), how can Whitman be, in […]

  4. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    I love your Whitman-flouncing-out-of-bathtub visualization. Allen Ginsberg tried on a similiarly vivid illustration of a writer “waving genitals and manuscript.”

    That impish Whitman. Throughout his writings and especially in the “Song,” he precludes any attempt to separate him from his work even as he piles on self-attributions that seem to have very little to do with “Whitman the name,” or even, as you point out, “Whitman the picture,” that smirk dripping over some kind of frozen sashay. In the dichotomy you construct of “poet-as-witness” and “poet-as-prophet,” you notably permit no point at which Whitman exists either “inside” or “outside” the poem. As the nominal “poet” of your definition, he exists everywhere inside the poem, in a trillion different places at once. However, by imposing his “real name” and his “real image” upon the text, he seems to insist that poetry, and specifically his poem, are immense enough for there to be really no space outside his poem. All life is enclosed in all poetry, if we take him at his word(s). “Whitman the man,” I think, would brook no “inherent separation into this prophetic voice.”

    In that reliable pattern by which we best characterize ourselves by speaking of others, Whitman most succinctly regards the possibility of inhabiting multiple spheres without splitting himself when he describes Lincoln’s White House in a wartime journal entry. Synecdochally extending from the home to the man inside it, Whitman observes that the White House is “full of reality, full of illusion.” Not half-and-half, but fully both because the two are inextricable. Whitman provides us with ample opportunity to compartmentalize small slivers of him, chiefly so that prove himself indivisible. “Whitman” is a name, a face and a prophet too, without switching hats to trade roles.

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