Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is the great American epic poem and has often been read as the poem that best captures the tensions and conflicting qualities that define what we might call the “American democratic self.” [click to expand/collapse for more]
The “talkers” and “discussers” now become the “trippers” and “askers,” those well-meaning people who occupy our days with talk of all the things that we often trick ourselves into believing actually form us—our childhood, our local environs, our dress, the latest news of wars, sickness, the stock market. These things do in some ways make up what we are, but there is something about each of us that goes far deeper.
Whitman shares with Henry David Thoreau this burning concern with the way life gets eaten up by trivialities, by what we learn to call “news.” “When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip,” Thoreau writes in “Life without Principle”: “We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is, that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Whitman, in this section of the poem, affirms his desire to hear from himself now, to access his “inward life,” what he calls “the Me myself.”
We are always surrounded by those who want to “pull and haul” us toward their own beliefs and concerns. The poet here tells us that he, too, wasted years trying to penetrate the “fog” of all the arguments of the “linguists and contenders”—those who use language to complicate life and divert our attention by getting us involved in the petty squabbles that occupy most people’s lives. Now, though, we are invited by the poet to contact the deeper area of ourselves that stands “apart” from these forces that are always trying to divert us from the self that matters.
Whitman here offers in words an image to match the engraving of the poet on the frontispiece of his first edition of Leaves of Grass, the poet in working-class garb, hat on, arm akimbo, fixing the reader with his penetrating gaze—a man who “Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,” one who “Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm . . . Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next.” The trick, Whitman says, is to figure out how to be “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” Unlike Thoreau, who sought his deeper self by removing himself from other humans, retreating to the wilderness, Whitman seeks the deeper self by carefully observing his urban surroundings, learning how to absorb it all while also standing apart from it, learning to “witness and wait,” to give himself time to see what is worth seeing. He will seek his “Me myself” not only in nature but in the multitudes of people he encounters daily, people who will challenge him to widen his sense of who he is.
Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.
The poet C. K. Williams begins his book-length meditation on Whitman wondering “where his music came from”—a question that has haunted generations of readers and writers. How did an ordinary newspaperman and sometime carpenter become the poet central to American identity? Williams believes that “we’ll never know when he first intuited, and heard, and knew, that surge of language sound, verse sound, that pulse, that swell, that sweep, which was to become his medium, his chariot—just to try to imagine him consciously devising it is almost as astounding as it must have been for him to discover it.” But discover it he did. And the fourth section of the poem reveals that in his literary apprenticeship Whitman “sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,” desperate as any young poet to find his voice. What he learned was how to “witness and wait,” keeping part of his imagination free from “the fever of doubtful news,” observing his surroundings with a keen eye, listening hard to the inflections of men and women from all walks of life so as to render them in his verses with the respect that they deserve.
A variation on his discovery in the previous section—I and this mystery here we stand”—opens the second stanza: “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am.” Notice that he does not write who I am butwhat I am—the self, that is, constructed line by line, which keeps its distance from the crowd, watching and wondering. Here is the representative poet of a national experiment in democracy who will not name himself until the twenty-fourth section, by which point he has become us all: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”
Can you think of times you have felt “both in and out of the game,” simultaneously a participant and an observer? What are the advantages and drawbacks of such a dual positioning of the self?
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