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,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."Do I contradict myself?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.
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
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.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."
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.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
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.