Jun 23, 2007

Walt Whitman, idiot?

I've been reading a lot of Langston Hughes' poetry lately, doing my best to help students appreciate its nuances, its power. Part of that requires understanding Hughes' poetic lineage: son of Carl Sandburg, grandson of Walt Whitman.

It takes work, and a level of care and dedication to the poem. It raises my hackles a bit, then, when Joe Carter writes,
As you'll recall from your high school literature class, Whitman's paean of narcissism contained the oft-quoted line,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The reason that Whitman could--using the language of poetry--make such a claim is because he was--using the language of philosophy--an idiot.
I'm saddened that Joe, either because of a crappy high school lit class, crappy study skills, or willful ignorance can't see the point of Whitman's supposed "paean of narcissism."

To "get" the poem, we have to realize that the speaker of "Song of Myself" isn't Walt Whitman. The difference between the poet and the speaker is basic. It's a fact I've been trying to draw juniors into understanding; most get it, but a few--the future Joe Carters--have trouble distinguishing the two.

For example, consider Langston Hughes' "I, Too, Sing America," which directly descends from Whitman:
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.


I'll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody'll dare

Say to me,

"Eat in the kitchen,"



They'll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.
Guess what? Hughes isn't literally a servant in a white household. He also isn't literally America. Instead, he uses "the language of poetry"--Carter's words--to give voice to a more universal, Whitmanic I, to declare the essential dignity and Americanness of the "darker brother."

Whitman's vision of America, the vision that Hughes appends and clarifies, is that of a "barbaric yawp" composed of many voices, yet speaking as one. It is a poetic version of E pluribus unum that does not resolve the contradictions, but swallows them up into a larger vision of American--and, more fundamentally--human identity.


Matthew Anderson said...

Check out the comments. I questioned Joe about why he thought Whitman was attacking our aesthetic sentiments. His response is interesting--I've been meaning to take it up in a post of my own, but have been busy reading other things.

I wrote a 25 page paper in high school about Whitman's life and poetry. I'm sure it was terrible. I had a tough time getting over Whitman's homosexuality, no doubt. However, in the last year since I've re-read Whitman, I've really been impressed by its poetic quality. Reading it out loud helped immensely for that, as it seems to for all the modern poets.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Good analysis, Jim. But even if I ignore the speaker/poet difference (which I am not prone to do), I don't see what the heck is wrong with contradiction. All of my favorite thinkers (Whitman, Emerson, Jesus, and, to a lesser extent, Ann Holmes Redding) contradict themselves at various points.

Jesus is love and cuddles at one point, threatening the sword at another. That's a contradiction. Indeed, Jesus is God and human. That's another contradiction. By Carter's definition, Jesus is, by both His actions and His very existence, an "idiot." I'm not willing to follow Carter there. He might deny it, but he's already there.

Jim Anderson said...

I actually agree with Carter that Whitman is overrated, but like any major league poet, every now and then he's going to hit one out of the park, and if he can bat .300 he's doing well. Even Shakespeare had his off days.