Courtney for 11/3

November 1st, 2009

This passage occurs in both versions of ‘Song of Myself’-

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Well, have we?  I do feel like I, or I guess I should say, we, have been on a journey with the great grey poet for the past few months.  We have had to re-teach ourselves how to read in Whitman’s language, how to understand his rhetoric and how to interpret changes in his usual tone or subjects.  When we first met Walt, he was a cocky character smirking inside the cover of Leaves of Grass.  Early on it seemed as if he was his biggest fan.  In the 1855 version of ‘Song of Myself’ he admits, “I know perfectly well my own egotism, / And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less, / And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.”  This is the early Whitman, who proclaimed that America needed a great poet and that he was just the man for the job (meanwhile quietly altering the crotch region of his frontispiece.)

I know that I had trouble trudging through the idealistic language and the sprawling lists.  I mean, who exactly did this guy think he was?  I was inspired by his great hope for America and the potential he saw in the lowliest of people, but I have to admit: I wasn’t sure that I bought it.  Then, when the nation verged on falling apart and Whitman himself was surrounded by chaos, Whitman earned himself some much-needed street cred.

Sure, his early poetry is filled with language that hints at war.  He seemed to want to motivate his “troops” to join the revolution to build a new nation.  However, he didn’t seem to realize the bloody implications of such a revolution until it arrived.  His later “Song of Myself” has a certain undertone of realism, since his battle cries are laced with the real-world experience of what comes along with war.

It can feel frustrating to read as Walt tries desperately to encompass every facet of everything and everyone.  However, reading through his personal reflections I realize not just the high standards that he had for his countrymen, but for himself.  Walt didn’t paint himself as the great poet of America because he thought that he was the most qualified for the job.  He simply saw something that needed to be done and took the initiative to do it.  He explains this in his interview when he says that, “our work at present, and for a long time to come, is to lay the materialistic foundations of a great nation.”  He (shockingly) continues with a sprawling last of all that must be covered and the great scope of this challenge.

As I reflect on Walt Whitman, reflecting on Walt Whitman I am attempting to see him as he saw himself.  Somehow, the cocky, preachy sort of jargon dims in my memory as I realize what Walt was trying to do from the very beginning.  He wanted to define what it meant to be an American.  Unexpectedly, he ended up in the trenches, experiencing the darkest side of revolution during the Civil War.  As a result, Whitman was given the chance to put his money where his mouth was a write a real description of what it really means to fight for the nation that you want to see.  I’m willing to say that he succeeded.

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