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Whitman’s Words

Written by

Kenneth Koch


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Posted

January 01, 1991

Type

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

I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass.

 

If you put the thoughts expressed in these opening lines of “Song of Myself” into ordinary speech, they are rather flat and uninteresting:

I myself am what I am celebrating; and everything that I am, you are also, since you and I are both made out of the same materials I’m really taking it easy, lying around and communing with my soul, while I look at a blade of grass.

Whitman’s lines don’t rhyme and they have no regular meter. There must be other things about them that make them so interesting and suggestive and exciting to read. These things, of course, are the words and the ways Whitman puts them together. By looking closely at these words and uses, one may be able to get closer to the mystery of poetry, of Whitman’s in any case, to be inspired by “Song of Myself” and to write like it and to understand it. I ask my students to pick out words and phrases they wouldn’t be likely to hear in conversation or to read in an essay or newspaper article. What’s peculiar about the way Whitman is talking? My college students find most of the oddities in the lines; and, with a bit more help, I think younger students could also:

  1. Nobody ever says “I celebrate”: instead one says “I’m celebrating,” “I celebrate” sounds like someone making a speech on a formal occasion: “Today we celebrate the birthday of a great American.”
  2. Myself would never come after celebrate in normal talk or prose writing. What one celebrates is a birthday, a holiday, a wedding, a victory. Celebrating oneself seems crazy.
  3. Repeating a word as Whitman repeats the word assume in line 2 with just two words between—what I assume you shall assume—draws attention to the sound of the word in a way that’s not usual in talking or prose-writing. Assume, the second time it’s used, is as much music as it is meaning.
  4. It’s not completely clear what Whitman means by assume. In fact, the word seems either to be used wrongly or to mean two things at once. Assume can mean “take for granted” or it can mean “take or put on”—you can assume the role of king, and you can assume that it’s nighttime, because it’s dark. In conversation, or in an article, the writer would have to be clearer and to choose one of these meanings or the other. In poetry, having two meanings at once can be an advantage—it can make what you say suggestive, mysterious, true in some way it couldn’t otherwise be.
  5. The word atom is a scientific word that doesn’t belong with words like celebrate and assume. It’s unexpected and a little jarring—as would be, say, the word oxygen in the statement, “come, let us walk through the oxygen.”
  6. The repetition of belong, like the earlier repetition of assume, puts an emphasis on sounds that isn’t usual in speech or expository prose.
  7. In the phrase “as good belongs to you,” “as good” is a very folksy, plain expression, not at all what you’d expect in a discourse about atoms, and just as surprising after atom as atom was after celebrate and assume. (Another example of folksiness and science might be “This is mighty fine radium.”)
  8. There’s a little rhyming in “Assume…assume” and “you” (in line 2and then another “you” in line3) that probably wouldn’t happen in talking or plain prose. Like word repetition, sound repetition (rhyme is one kind) draws attention to the physical qualities of words and gives them music along with their meanings.
  9. The idea of loafing seems a big jump from the philosophical speculations on identity that precede it. Such an apparent jump in subject matter might make prose conversation hard to follow. In poetry it can be exciting. In poetry, when there’s a jump, you just jump, and afterwards you see where you are.
  10. The lowly, folksy word loafe (an older spelling of loaf) seems out of place in the same sentence with soul, which is a very “high-class,” serious word.
  11. There’s a partial rhyme in the words loafe and soul, which would tend to make one keep the two words father apart in talk or in prose.
  12. Repeating loafe the way Whitman does in lines 4 and 5 would be needlessly repetitious in prose.
  13. The expression “at my ease” would seem repetitious and maybe even stupid in prose, since how else would you “loafe”—tensely? painfully? vigorously?
  14. The word observing seems too serious and official for looking at a grass blade. Astronomers observe planets and detectives observe criminals, but why observe a plain old blade of grass?
  15. Spear is a strange word for grass—the usual word is blade which was doubtless strange when it was first used).
  16.  Like the repetitions and the rhymes in other lines, all the s sounds in the last half line draw attention to the physical qualities of the words and make some music.
  17. Throughout the passage the present tense is used in a way that would certainly be strange in an article or conversation—as if one were to say, “I turn on the light, I go to the door and take you in my arms.” Who talks this way?

To sum up, one finds in Whitman’s lines a mixture of plain and fancy (including religious and scientific and colloquial) words, repetitions of words and sounds that tend to partly change the words into music, vagueness, seemingly “wrong” uses of words, odd combinations of words, jump in subject matter, and an odd present tense. These oddnesses and “mistakes” make his lines different from prose and are part of what makes them poetry.

Reading such strangely mixed language so full of leaps and other surprises is not like reading the newspaper. It gives a different kind of meaning and does it in a different way.

Seeing the peculiarities of Whitman’s language can help students to enjoy writing like Whitman as well as to understand “Song of Myself.” A good writing exercise for students is to ask them to write four or five lines using as many of Whitman’s oddities as they can; for example, to start with a phrase like “I celebrate” (or “I prophesy,” “I command,” “I entertain”) and to follow that with something as unlikely as myself (Wednesday morning, ice-cold drinks, my dog sleeping). Then maybe a line with a word repeated like assume (And what I endorse you shall endorse) and so on. They are likely to have a good time doing this—it’s silly-seeming but inspiring. It leads to something—for one thing, an enlarged sense of what can be done with language, if you try to strange things with it, especially in poems.

Of course, the sense of the opening lines, and of the rest of “Song of Myself,” is closely connected to all that seems odd in the words. For example, for Whitman it makes perfect sense to announce a formal celebration of himself. A person’s ordinary self is more wonderful than any special particular day or event. And the best way to celebrate the self is just to lie around and take it easy, to loaf and look at things. And a grass blade is exactly the kind of thing that’s worthy of being observed; it’s plain, it’s common, it’s alive, it’s eternally reborn, it’s fresh and green, it proves that there is no death. What better thing to look at? No monument can compare to it. And if loafing is the right way to behave, you get a better sense of it from saying it slowly, from repeating—“I loafe” and “I lean and loafe at my ease.” Atom is a fine word to use because scientific and literary and plain words are all equal and all parts of the divine oneness and variety that Whitman finds in everything; words, people, animals, places. There are no privileged characters in Whitman and no privileged words. And so “as good belongs to you,” folksy though it is, is just fine for a philosophical statement. What’s easiest and most natural is what’s truest; profundity’s in plain talk and not in fancy academic or poetical speech. As for the present tense, it is perfect for saying “This is always going on, it’s always true, it’s always wonderful, it’s always right here and how.”

Finally, what Whitman has to say about oneness of all things is quite mysterious. It can’t be logically proven, can’t be rationally shown. But rhymes, repetitions, and even vagueness can help us to feel it. There is an exciting dreamy convincingness in “what I assume you shall assume” that would be lacking, for example, in a phrase such as “we’re just alike.” Once you see, and help others to see, the connections between the (not really separate) language and meaning of “Song of Myself” reading this long, complicated-seeming poem should be easier, and, as Whitman might say, luckier.


From The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman, Ron Padgett, editor. Copyright © 1991 by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Used by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 520 8th Avenue, Suite 2020, New York NY 10018. www.twc.org.

 

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