This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.
The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.
He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.
Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.
The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.
Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).
Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”
Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).
Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.
Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:
“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.
Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”
This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).
Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you
Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).
Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.
What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).
He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.
The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.
Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.
He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.
There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.
In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.
This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).
Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”
He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).
It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).