Monday, September 07th, 2009 | Author:

I’ve been thinking about our discussion in class last week where some people were suspicious of Whitman on the grounds that he says everyone is equal but then clearly elevates himself as prophet or model (see self-reviews for his own discussion of this, by the way).  I have had this same reaction to Whitman many times.  But the nagging thought for me is that we might be punishing him for embracing democracy and equality— that is, we do not necessarily condemn other poets and writers, who at their essence, if they publish in any way, assert that they too have something to teach us or bear a particular and special word/insight (don’t give me that they write for themselves alone but seek readership.  BS).   We condemn Whitman because he asserts this baldly even as he says we are all the same.  So what don’t we like?

  • That he admits the poetic-prophetic role blatantly? (If so, who else will we write off as just egotistical?  It’s a long list.)
  • That he does so while preaching democracy?  (But doesn’t democracy have leaders and spokespeople that are, ideally, representative? Is that a hierarchy or a decent division of labor based on natural abilities and interests? And would it be better to embrace hierarchy, judgment, and inequality in order to establish or justify his elevation as a poet?  (See T.S. Eliot, a poet I adore, but please.)
  • Is there something about the I of Whitman, the insistence of a lyric voice in poem that, despite his repeated assertions otherwise, is obviously epic in scope and reach, that makes the poetic-prophetic seem like egotism instead of inspiration?
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  1. Along the same lines, it seems a little funny that we can go along with the (frankly bizarre) “We the People” of the Constitution (which was written and ratified when no such constituency really existed–was written, in fact, to CREATE such a constituency by sleight of hand) yet be suspicious of a poet who takes it seriously. Neither, I think, should Whitman’s use of the first-person pronoun be so foreign to those who have studied Jesus Christ’s use of it in phrases like “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I” means more than just the guy you see in front of you.

    Of course, this still leaves us with the problem of Whitman’s insistence on the (especially his own) body . . .

  2. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    I had been considering the same thing during class. I did originally feel that Whitman was asserting himself rather strongly as being the ideal of the American poet with all the answers, but when I stopped and thought about it for a while I realized he wasn’t really trying to teach us anything new. He was just trying to point something out that we should already know, everyone has the potential to be just as amazing as anyone else, if only he or she is willing to embrace that potential. When I thought about it as more of a reminder than a lesson I felt much better about what Whitman was trying to say.

  3. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I guess that Whitman’s exaltation of himself, while preaching equality, simply shows that the idea of a “pure” democracy doesn’t fit in the real world. Out of necessity, due to large quantities of people, we do have representatives that are supposed to speak for us. Last semester, Dr. Harding said something that I liked, when defining democracy. This is a paraphrase, since I heard this in February or March, but he said that democracy doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same things; what it does is provide the opportunity for everyone to get those things. Man, I think I really butchered that, but the sentiment was that democracy provides doors to people (that they may or may not choose to walk through) that other forms of government do not. With that definition, Whitman’s setting himself up as the country’s poet makes sense.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    It strikes me as well that my post and our discussion of Whitman are too easily conflating democracy (a form of government) and equality (a way of being, an ethical ideal in a society, a fundamental respect for others).

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

    I think much of our resistance to Whitman’s seemingly endless open-heartedness emerges out of a nagging defensiveness that stubbornly draws away from believing him. How can a single man, the “Walt Whitman” we must at some point assume is the both the author and subject of this poem, encompass a “poet-prophet’s” broadness of vision and essential goodness while still containing everything distractingly human, the “Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness,” etc. (311)? By humanizing his self-presentation, Whitman becomes more relatable, but also makes his “kosmic” immensity seem all the more impossible, or at least overwhelming. Ultimately we, the readers (Dr. Earnhart has got me all constitutional) determine whether Whitman is human, and thus whether his open egalitarianism is credible, based on whether we can feel as large and benevolent as he seems to. When we can’t, we glare at him accusingly from below; when we can, we unclench and look around at the country he wants to show us.

  6. Avatar of nataliesayth nataliesayth says:

    After a while, repeatedly claiming “I” doesn’t strike me as increasingly conceited, but more as decreasingly meaningful. When he goes into his classic catalogues, including the ones that begin with “I,” it’s hard not to start skimming down the page to see how long he’ll be listing body parts, professions, pieces of nature, etc. And as I look forward to some new syntax, I become sort of desensitized to the grand claims “I” is loaded with. In other words, making one “I” statement after another eventually makes it difficult for the reader/listener to take seriously the grandeur of such prophetic declarations.

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