Walt Whitman, whose first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, has been probably the most influential poet of American literature, followed closely by Emily Dickinson, who seems to have never intended to have her poems widely published. Why have these writers been so influential? The short answer is that they were real originals. There are many authors who write fine books, but at some level they can be understood as derivative of their precursors. Not so with Whitman and Dickinson.
Read Whitman’s Song of Myself, Sections 1-6, 11-12, 24, and 48-52. (Beginning on page 1240.)
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is found in his book Leaves of Grass, which he revised and expanded throughout his life, adding and deleting poems as his sense and style evolved. The 52-section free-verse “Song of Myself” is an American epic. Its topic, as you can tell from the title, is the “Self,” and yet he does not mean this in any kind of “selfish” way. Rather, the speaker of the poem views his “Self” as co-existing with all of the people and experiences around himself. He is in the universe and the universe is in him, so that the study of the Self becomes not a narcissistic exercise, but rather an exercise in exploring everything and everyone. Take Section 6 for instance. (p. 1244-45). This Section begins simply enough with the question, “What is the grass?”, but in the course of answering the question, the grass becomes many things (in order of their appearance): a symbol of the “Creator’s” power; a symbol of equality; the “hair of graves”; the sprouting hair of men in the graves; the hair of old people and of babies; the lap where the mother sits, mourning the death of her child; and the tongue. In fact there is no answer to the original question; there is only a catalog of metaphors and translations, all pointing to the idea that nothing ever completely ends (or dies). In the particular, the material – the grass – Whitman has discovered the universal. He takes the material world, including his body, very seriously and sees in it the spiritual or soulful. In fact, the spirit or the soul transcends the physical world, which is only a mask for the power behind it. This is the philosophy of American Transcendentalism, of which Whitman was an adherent. (It’s also Platonic. Allegory of the Cave, anybody? Though Whitman and other Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, also saw the physical world as immensely satisfying and redolent – a sense they did not share with Plato.)
Whitman’s sense of American Exceptionalism encompassed Democracy, Equality, Opportunity, and Brotherhood. His vision was not specifically Christian, though he used Christian imagery in his poetry. Winthrop would have found him a vile heretic. His sense of spirituality was more what we would call today “New Age.” His vision was not specifically male, either, or White. He wrote freely and highly empathetically about the experience of females, Blacks, Native Americans, and homosexuals (he was gay himself, though could not be openly so at the time). He believed America, at its finest, encompassed all of these perspectives. Like Thoreau in Walden, Whitman wished to “suck out the marrow of life.” Whitman did not specifically refer to the Transcendental “Oversoul” in “Song of Myself,” referring instead to the “always procreant urge of the world” and the “barbaric yawp,” but Thoreau and Whitman had in mind the same idea – a unifying, infinite, spiritual energy of which ALL things in the universe are a part.
As you read these Sections of “Song of Myself,” keep in mind a few things:
1. If you find what seems to be overt sexual imagery, you’re not wrong. This is a very sensual poem, and the eroticism – both heterosexual and homosexual – is deliberate. Whitman embraced sexuality as a necessary and joyful adjunct of life.
2. While it may not appear to be “poetry” in the traditional sense – there is no rhyme, no single meter, and there are what may appear to be random line breaks – the sounds of the poem are at times breathtaking. When I read this aloud to students, I usually find it quite tiring and difficult because there is so much sound in his lines. Try it. Read a page aloud and you’ll see what I mean. If you actually enunciate the words, you’ll here all kinds of sonic elements.
3. The imagery can also be astounding. The contrast of images in Sections and between Sections, the originality of the descriptions, the level of detail, are all extraordinary. What appears “simple” is really not.
Contrast Whitman with Emily Dickinson and you’ll have opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of style, though I think the same passion, which is ironic since Whitman was an active self-promoter, while Dickinson was famously reclusive and primarily shared her work through letters to friends. She never published a book while she was alive.
Dickinson’s poems are identified by number (she didn’t title them) based on which edition of her poems is being cited. Read the introductory notes about her (pgs. 1314-1317), and then beginning on page 1318, read poem 84, 241, 249, 258, 280, 324, 328, 341, and 435.
It’s almost a requirement that her works be read in relation to each other and not in isolation. Certainly, each poem succeeds in its own way, but the symbols or motifs that she introduces – such as birds, flies, and butterflies, or the various permutations of “Light” – speak to each other across the poems and enlarge their sense. As you interpret these poems, here are a couple of guidelines:
First, remember that the poems are lyrical; they are not meant to be read as narratives but more as collages of images and sounds that arrive at a certain feeling and tone; some are more literal than others, but in general, they are meant to infer, provoke, and emote, not define, subdue and rationalize; second, make punctuation your friend; use the dashes and the often inverted syntax to wring out multiple interpretations of each poem; if a phrase or line doesn’t “make sense,” don’t skip it, but view it in relation to the lines before and after and forget some of what you think of as “proper” grammar. Third, if you can’t “get” one poem, then read another; the poems speak to each other.
For instance, let’s look at poem 328, “A Bird came down the Walk.” The first stanza is actually fairly narrative; it describes the speaker’s observation. Notice, however, the irregular rhyme scheme and the capitalization. The second stanza is also narrative, though it gets a little more complicated with the lines, “a convenient Grass – And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/To let a Beetle pass.” Does she mean this literally? Whereas the first stanza was observational, this stanza begins to personify the bird as a human being. How would the speaker know that the bird does something because it is “convenient,” or that a bird would feel the need to let the bug “pass,” as if they were walking down a crowded street on the way to the store? Perhaps the speaker is using the bird as a metaphor for a person that she is watching. In the third stanza, you have the added detail of the bird’s “fear,” another anthropomorphic quality. In the fourth stanza, notice that the speaker is the “one in danger,” further suggesting that the poem is, at some level, about the speaker’s interaction with another person. The “bird,” however, refuses the speaker’s offer of a “Crumb,” which now can be understood as some overture on the speaker’s part toward this mystery person.
The imagery of the last six lines is pretty intense: flying, rowing, swimming, splashing, fish and butterflies are all invoked. The ocean is compared to the atmosphere in terms of its immensity and turbidity, and the “plashless” leaps of butterflies are compared to a rowboat moving across “silver” waters. The imagination and metaphoric dexterity here are astounding. The “bird” flies away so quietly and so speedily that no sign is left of the exchange. Even a butterfly “swimming” in the noon-time sunlight makes more commotion than this fleeting bird.
So what has happened? There is no one answer, and that’s okay. I think the poem is “about” someone the speaker knows, someone she has seen doing something he/she was nervous about. When the speaker confronts the person, the person refuses to interact with the speaker and “disappears”; but this is all conjecture. These poems are not math equations or even philosophical proofs. They are tones, moods, effects, and they are meant to provoke the reader. A paraphrase of these poems, such as I just provided, would never capture their real sense, which can only be rendered in poetry. Doesn’t music operate in a similar way. It has to be experienced. You can learn to talk about the craft elements, and you can learn to interpret it, but the experience of the original poem is key. As you read these, let them wash over you first, then try to figure them out second. They are actually extremely intelligent, and each element in each poem serves some purpose, however small.
There is a connection between the Whitman and the Dickinson, even though they sound extremely different from each other. I would argue that both are poets of the ecstatic moment. Both poets “feel” the world intensely and attempt to communicate that feeling through details and metaphors that push the reader to experience the world in a new way. They may approach ecstasy from opposite ends of the spectrum – Whitman through the urge to meld with everything (the procreant urge) and Dickinson through the awareness of Death and and disintegration – but Dickinson feels all the more strongly the more fully she contemplates Death. Both poets, in the end, arrive at a similar experience.
Ginsberg, Allen: “A Supermarket in California” (p. 1312-13)