February 20, 2005

Walt Whitman, Sexy Beast of Nature . . . Yahonk!

Well, I haven't posted a lit journal in a really long time (since last May) . . . and it's been even longer since I've written one. But, as my readers should know, I have a batch of five coming due on Tuesday, so . . . here we go again.

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

First of all . . . Walt Whitman. Wow. What a special guy. He reminds me very much of Oscar Wilde in that he built an enormous image for himself in his own time and place, simply because he had a style and a message all his own. After that the similarities disintegrate fairly quickly, but that is what his unashamed passion for and revelry in nature, simplicity, and the common man remind of . . . (Wilde, of course, reveled in decadence).

His poem, "Song of Myself," originally untitled, is in many ways a religious document. However, despite that title, he is not the god of his own religion . . . merely the high priest or chief prophet. I do not sense any conceit or false pride in this poem, merely a genuine faith in his dogma and an earnest longing that others will read and believe. Rather I should say that all of his false pride is attached to the entirety of the human race, not just to himself. No less wrong, certainly, but somehow easier to swallow.

The poem is so incredibly alive. It flows freely without constraint of rhyme scheme or meter . . . This in itself serving as the definitive statement on how Whitman lives his own life and why it is the best way for everyone. Its 52 stanzas are about life, love, nature, knowledge, freedom . . . all of these presented as the ideals Whitman believed they should be. Life should be lived in perfect freedom: laughing, loving, and . . . cavorting in nature. The constraints of civilization, from laws to prejudices, need not apply. All knowledge should be acquired from living in nature and interacting with nature. Everything you need to know to live and be happy can be learned from watching a sunrise or playing in ocean surf.

Societal conventions and norms are unnecessary, constraining, and probably harmful . . . This goes for everything from formal etiquette to church attendance to proper attire . . . or, for that matter, any attire. It is perhaps on this point that I take the most serious issue with his philosophy because . . . Dude, Walt . . . Don't nobody want to see that. Nuh-uh. Just slide it right back on and step on back. Leaving your hat on in the house is one thing, but if that's all you're leaving on we have issues.

Certainly my favorite thing about Whitman is the wonderful humanitarian aspect of his character that surfaces in the poetry. He speaks of loving people, all people, equally . . . He doesn't discriminate based on gender or race or age. He speaks of giving aid to the suffering and dying. He actually thinks he can help everyone, and that the world will be a better place for following his credo. His supreme confidence in this is somewhat contagious . . . or would be if it weren't for, say, the 20th century.

It is impossible for me to think of Whitman in connection with his poetry without picturing a self-made "tall tale" hero of epic renown. Like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Pecos Bill, thoughts of Walt Whitman bring to mind an immense figure who wanders the sparsely inhabited regions of young (teen-aged?) America. He is probably naked, but that immense white beard maintains a show of modesty for the sake of my too-vivid imagination. He covers an enormous area with his huge stride, and whenever he approaches civilization he leaves nothing but wilderness behind with every step. He is helper, teacher, and savior to everyone he meets . . . pioneer and native alike. He is, oxymoronically, something of a Bacchanalian Christ-figure.

I enjoy "Song of Myself." To anyone who thinks it a bit too full of chutzpah, I refer you to my earlier statements regarding same . . . And to anyone who finds his ideology just a bit too hard to swallow, I submit that, after all, it's several steps above the ever-popular, always-nauseating "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Posted by Jared at February 20, 2005 01:52 PM | TrackBack