Thursday, July 29, 2010

Whatever interests the rest interest me - my favorite bit of Whitman

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars,
    markets, newspapers, schools,
The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories,
    stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.

Here we have my favorite piece of Walt Whitman.  It’s from “Song of Myself,” part or canto or chapter 42, 1881 revised version, I think.*

First, please, just soak in the sheer beauty of Whitman’s verse.  Read it alound, rolling the words around on your tongue. Plunge in.  Revel in it.  Think of it as a poetic spa treatment, a mud-seaweed wrap.  “Banks, tariffs” - wonderful. 

Are these lines even bad?  They’re close to nothing, to nothing at all.  The lists are one of Whitman’s great innovations, but they’re seldom as unadorned as this one.  The original 1855 version had “churches” instead of “wars, markets” and “Benevolent societies, improvements” in place of “The mayor and councils.”  My ear is not especially subtle – what I hear in either one, rhythmically, is something like a muffled thud, Whitman dropping his Brooklyn city directory on his foot.**

Whitman is (in the 1855 edition) three-quarters of the way through “Song of Myself” at this point.  The poem circles back on itself.  Whitman is again reaffirming his omni-identity, but without the World Spirit mysticism found in other sections of the poem.  Earlier, he sees everyone else, or hears them, or even is them, while here he is simply one of them.  Now his interest is universal. 

I think this actually is a profound line.  I resist “Song of Myself” when I read it – I know that I cannot become the wasp, I cannot become the rock.***  Then, late in the poem, Whitman’s position relaxes, and I see myself.  What interests the rest interests me, too.  Within, I admit, ordinary human limits. It’s an ideal.

The prosaic stanza, the dull list, is deliberately chosen. The next stanza (I’m back to 1855):

They who piddle and patter here in collars and tailed coats
    . . . . I am aware who they are . . . . and that they are not worms or fleas,
I acknowledge the duplicates of myself under all the scrape-
    lipped and pipe-legged concealments.

This now, this looks more like poetry, the writing of someone working with English, doesn't it?  And before the newspapers and real estate and blah blah blah:

Here and there with dimes on the eyes walking,
To feed the greed of the belly the brains liberally spooning,
Tickets buying or taking or selling, but in to the feast never
    once going;
Many sweating and ploughing and thrashing, and then the
    chaff for payment receiving,
A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming.

The yawp may have become overly barbaric – grammar has been expelled, sense soon to follow.  Whitman needed a stop.

This really is my favorite passage of Whitman, of Leaves of Grass, this ungainly, unpoetic, list.  Fifteen years ago, I identified it as the perfect epigraph for my dissertation, which is just as boring as the choice suggests.  I needed at least one good sentence in the dissertation, but not, you know, not too good.  Plus, it has that inspirational motto, good enough to repeat: whatever interests the rest, interests me.

* Frankly, I’ve completely confused myself about Whitman’s timeline.
** Before phone books, there were city directories, which had addresses in place of phone numbers.
*** I'm actually thinking ofa scene in A Passage to India here.


  1. Can you say more about your dissertation? I'm interested to learn what kind of argument you made, and how it all succeeded. Have you read Thoreau? For whatever reason, I tend to contrast Thoreau with Whitman. Where the former often writes in a puling, almost judgmental tone (maybe sententious is the better word choice), the latter seems to offer an all-embracing lovefest, love for nature, people, words, and above all death, or the things we often see as negative. Anyhow. I'd be curious to hear how the Thoreau/Whitman contrast strikes you, if at all, and when you have time... Cheers, Kevin

  2. My dissertation was a complete success. It met the minimum standards of the field, enabling me to get a PhD, which they can never take away from me now.

    I actually think of Thoreau as, well, as not as sincere as people think. As a sort of satirist, most strongly in the most (seemingly) self-righteous passages. A minority view, I know, but it's been growing on me, even since I wrote about Walden last year.

    He and Whitman are very much alike in their love of paradox. And they have a similar sort of world-spirit mysticism behind them that I don't understand. They're both Epicureans, but of such different temperaments.

    This is worth thinking about. So many of the most individual writers of the period - Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville - have all of these weird similarities, generally without really knowing each others work. They're all responding to the same things, I guess.