Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Poet, The World, and Everything: Songs of Myself by Walt Whitman

In 1969 I picked up a paperback copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I still have the book, underlined and worn. For me, Song of Myself has always been one of Whitman's trickier poems to tackle and I have only read it in bits and pieces. I was excited to see this new volume of Song of Myself with commentary. It gave me an opportunity to read the poem in its entirety, with aids to help me sort it out.

In 2014 the University of Iowa offered an open, international online course, Every Atom: Walk Whitman's "Song of Myself." This book arose from that project. This is the first section-by-section reading of the poem.

The introduction, Reading Song of Myself, notes that the poem appeared in six editions from 1855 to 1881, and its meaning changed as did America, viewed as nostalgia, or as arising from the Civil War and later class and racial stress, or even as mystical. It's appearance as the main poem of Leaves of Grass never changed.

Folsom reminds us of the huge changes during Whitman's writing of the poem: The Civil War and Reconstruction; scientific advances that toppled humanity's concept of itself in relation to time and the universe; the breakdown of religious beliefs constraining scientific beliefs; the struggle for freedom for African Americans.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In Song of Myself, Whitman was offering a paradigm for understanding the interconnectedness of all things, imagining an ideal Democratic society and setting forth its tenets. What he proposes is radical. We are called to rise above all conventional and group thinking to perceive the material reality. All perceived divisions are false. Atoms flow from one thing into another which makes all interrelated and one. The grass arises from the dead in a perfect circle of life.

A child said What is the grass?...And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves....What do you think has become of the young and old men?And what do you think has become of the women and children?They are alive and well somewhere,The smallest sprout shows there is really no death...

The poet embraces all humanity, identifying himself with every sort of person and every sort of human experience. Work, war, sex; slave and master, male and female; the innocent and the guilty, the quick and the dead; there is nothing alien. Boundaries, hierarchies, divisions are artificial. He shares all with everyone, and speaks for everyone.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also. 

Whitman ends the poem with the lines "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Words can scare communicate what the poet wants us to understand. We may need to look for his body "under your boot-soles" but his "barbaric yawp" has endured, to "make of it what you will." Thankfully, this commentary has aided me and opened up a new understanding of America's greatest poem.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary
Iowa Whitman Series
Walt Whitman with Commentary by Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill
University of Iowa Press
Publication October 15, 2016
paper back ISBN 978-1-60938-465-4
ebook 978-1-60938-466-1

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