I Hear America Singing is one of those deceptively simple poems that still manages to manifest Whitmans poetic power. Of course, if it were written today people would probably merely consider it a Pepsi commercial cliché, its that good.
I HEAR AMERICA SINGING.
I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day- at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
When it was written, though, this poem was anything but a cliché. Few notable poets celebrated the common man in the way Whitman does here.
The simple, straight-forward descriptions of each of the characters reminds us that Whitman sometimes served as a newspaper writer. It may also remind modern readers of the kind of direct imagery often found in Japanese and Chinese literature.
There is a constant shifting between group singing and singing individually, as Whitman tries to convey the contradictory ideas of self and en-mass. All of the characters are singing their own song, singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, but they also seem to be singing together, I hear America singing, their strong melodious songs. Singing with its dramatic solos and beautiful choirs seems like a near perfect metaphor for acting individually but also as a group.
This idea of individuality within repetition is reinforced by Whitmans catalogue technique. Each of the characters in this poem is presented clearly yet simply. Yet, taken as a whole these characters are everyman, unique, yet similar. There are few things more beautiful than when powerful soloists come together in a strong choir.
:: A Man to Awaken Wonder ::
With a sixth grade education New York poet, Walt Whitman, whipped the literati of the world down a new path of fresh poetic imagery and thought.
Today the list of those artists and the arts he has influenced is long and revered. His stature was slow to build during his lifetime, but Whitman himself would not be astounded at his far reaching influence even today. His Ego and the belief in the ME would simply recognize his durability as the continuation of the Soul.
At the age of 36, after working as a printer, journalist, and school teacher, Whitman self published a small volume of poems within a book he entitled Leaves of Grass, the first poem of which he eventually titled Song of Myself.
Certainly not praised as the intoxicated poet Emerson was calling for, Whitmans Leaves of Grass, according to his harshest critics was full of noxious weeds, offensive,,,impious, obscene, hectoring, and ludicrous. He was called a gesticulating satyr... who roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts, his work rank witch-grass, fit for the furnace.
Not a very propitious beginning...
The most objective contemporary critic, appearing in the New York Daily Times, November 1856 feared
...that the time is not yet come for the nakedness of purity. We are not yet virtuous enough to be able to read your poetry aloud to our children and our wives. What might be pastoral simplicity five hundred years hence, would perhaps be stigmatized as the coarsest indecency now, and--we regret to think that you have spoken too soon.
With all this muck of abomination soiling the pages, there is a wondrous, unaccountable fascination about the Leaves of Grass...No country save this could have given birth to the man. His mind is Western--brawny, rough, and original...the egotism of intellectual solitude.
This man has brave stuff in him. He is truly astonishing. The originality of his philosophy is of little account, for if it is truth, it must be ever the same, whether uttered by his lips or Platos....Mr. Whitman is novelty itself....Its manly vigor, its brawny health, seem to incite and satisfy....We are much mistaken if, after all, he does not yet contribute something to American literature which shall awaken wonder.
Thus Walt Whitman began his career as a poet, causing wide circles in the pond of American literature.
For his critics, the first line of his first poem in Leaves of Grass was an indication of his irritating style.
I celebrate myself--this unknown would also go on to celebrate his Ego, laud the common worker, disparage education, create very sensuous if not downright sexy images.
How dare he?
Several themes run through Song of Myself. Perhaps the most important is the concept of the soul and the oneness of all elements of life to which we belong. Emerson rightly commented that Whitmans poetry was a wonderful mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and the New York Herald.
The second line of the poem reflects the universality so prominent in Eastern religion.
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.
And off we go...
The first stanza ends with
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The it here is the atmosphere of the cosmos, that which the speaker finds for my mouth forever--I am in love with it .
Me, the Ego, the eternal and universal. The self, the soul, the Kosmos, as Whitman called himself, becomes the speaker in the poem, representing the poet as well as the reader, the time and space in which we find ourselves. The Boston Oracle wrote about his theme, Man embraces and comprehends the whole. He is everything, and everything is him.
The smoke of my own breath;...
the beating of my heart, the passing of blood...
The sniff of green leaves...
The sound of the belchd words of my voice,...
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;...
the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun...
have you reckond the earth much?...
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?...
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;...
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
In the beginning we are given notice that the speaker will not offer answers to lifes perplexing problems. Rather, he will identify the cosmos in which we float; within that ether we must find our own way. And if we are really listening, we can accept and even gain comfort from our present lives.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now...
Clear and sweet is my Soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my Soul...
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent,...
Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile,...
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing:
The fourth stanza offers another explanation of the Self. Whitman writes that his life, his relationships, the news of the day are not him.
People I meet--the effect upon me of my early life, or the ward and city I live in or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, author old and new
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliment, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,...
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary;...
I believe in you, my Soul...
In addition to being criticized for his philosophy of the Self, Whitman also drew scowls for his sensuous imagery. Stanza five no doubt was not selected to be read to the family. Remember this was 1856:
I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turnd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reachd till you felt my beard, and reachd till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;
This may be the space to discuss Whitmans sexuality. A college professor of mine once introduced his lecture with Yes, Whitman was homosexual. The partner in stanza 5 could be male or female. Whitman did form very close relationships with several men over the course of his life, but he never stated his sexual preference, creating a lasting interest in part of his life that is really not our business. Heterosexual or homosexual labels are deflections and as such are irrelevant.
Stanza six is an insight into the kind of teacher Whitman may have been. He begins by remembering a childs question, What is the grass? He answers
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves...
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers...
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;...
All goes onward and outward--nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Whitman continues on the subject of death.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform his or her, it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washd babe, and am not containd between my hat and boots;
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and very one good;
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth, nor an adjunct of an earth;
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Another theme, Whitmans affection for the common laborer, the men who worked outdoors, the women who raised babies is obvious and another source of dismay for his class conscious critics. He praises
The little one...
The youngster and the red-faced girl
The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders...
the fury of rousd mobs;...
The flap of the curtaind litter, a sick man inside...
The meeting of enemies...
The excited crowd
the over-fed or half-starvd
of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes...
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here--what howls restraind by decorum...
I mind them or the show or resonance of them--I come, and I depart.
Mens daily labors are described in sensuous detail, and on a spiritual level, Whitman participates in their lives. First the farmer...
The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon...
I am there--I help--I came stretchd atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts--one leg reclined on the other;
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.
Alone, far in the wilds and mountains, I hunt,
Wandering, amazed at my own lightness and glee;
The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud...
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl...
On a bank lounged the trapper--he was drest mostly in skins--his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck--he held his bride by the hand;
She had long eyelashes--her head was bare--her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reachd to her feet.
Whitman also included a particularly poignant encounter he had with a runaway slave.
The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside;
I heard his motions crackling...
I saw him limpsy and weak...
and filld a tub for his sweated body and bruisd feet...
gave him some coarse clean clothes...
remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness...
remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles...
(I had him sit next me at table--my fire-lock leand in the corner.)
Prepared he was to defend his guest.
The effrontery of a self published poet who saw himself in everyone and everyone in him continues throughout Song of Myself, and I will continue my impressions of the poem tomorrow.