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  • Sam (Protich) for Sept. 1

    Among the innumerable paradoxes splayed out across the leaves—excuse me, pages—of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poet’s grand, world-eating generosity, the irrefutable hugeness of his spirit, must remain one of the least resolvable.  When poetry anthologies or semi-eulogizing literary historians take up the subject of the “Song,” they dutifully report the poet’s openhearted offering: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, /  …You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself” (28).  However, in keeping with his stated pursuit of contradiction and complexity, Whitman does not let all this giving go unanswered.  Those moments in which the poem’s speaker most empowers the reader, yielding up his own apparently infinite insight to any who might care to take it, also stand as precisely those moments in which the speaker most lavishly inflates himself.  Whitman can only give us everything, “the origin of all poems,” if he first insists that it is his to give.

                The audacity of Whitman’s claims can thus be measured in direct proportion to his avowed humility.  “I am not an earth nor and adjunct of an earth,” he says, “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” (33).  Through the advantage of this kind of divine awareness, an ability to “know how immortal,” Whitman seems to attain the immortality that, as a human being, he supposes he must always have had.  In Orwell’s formulation of almost a century later, Whitman thus renders himself, or at least his poetic self-projection, effectively “more equal than others”: while no man or woman can be “fathomed,” Whitman alone can fully see that immeasurability, and reveal it to his apostrophized “YOU” readership.

                Only by recognizing Whitman’s presumptuousness in this respect can we hope to truly benefit from his injunction to “listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”  In order to more completely immerse the reader in his “Song,” Whitman actually complicates the act of reading in a way that forces us to listen to him before we can choose not to.  Occasionally he goes so far as to openly state the partial danger within his intentions.  “I am not,” he says, “the poet of goodness only… I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also” (48).  In order for us to genuinely absorb input from all modes of living, Whitman implies, we must resist the temptation to interpret the “Song’s” long catalogues of people and occupations as an authentic representation of “all sides.”  Of course, those lists and his comments on, above and around them serve to anchor us within the poem thoroughly enough that we might forget to see outside it.  By recognizing the grandness of Whitman’s vision, we become responsible for looking ever further beyond it.

    One Response to “Sam (Protich) for Sept. 1”

    1. MNS: I Give You My Hand » Blog Archive » Dia-mono-(maniacal- bolical)-logic Whitman says:

      […] through this 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 […]

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