Whitman’s Metonymy Leads to ‘You’

October 31, 2009 § 1 Comment

In chapter 2 of Re-scripting Walt Whitman, Ed Folsom and Ken Price offer this insight regarding the emergence of Whitman’s poetics and its vision of capacity–a place where every atom belongs as good to the poet (the me) as to his reader (his ‘you’):

Whitman’s goal was the multitudinous self, a self capacious enough to identify with the vast variety of human types that American democracy was producing: he loved America’s “loose drift of character, the inkling through random types” (LG, 186), and Whitman’s pun on “ink” and “type” here would become his great metonymic invention—to turn human types into printed type, to ink character on a page, to turn a book into a man. “Camerado, this is no book,” he writes, “Who touches this touches a man” (LG, 505), and throughout Leaves, we can feel an identity straining to make human contact through the print and paper: “I pass so poorly with paper and types . . . . I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls” (LG 1855, 57).

As I have mentioned, I first learned and thought about metonymy from Whitman (with help from Ed Folsom). And so, I would argue that a key insight is offered here. With metonymy in mind, and always in hand, Whitman invents his poetry: that is to say, metonymy (the figure of relation and connection, of partialities that piece together a whole–like atoms in flux) is not just one of many poetic or rhetorical figures in the lines of poetry, it becomes the lines of poetry. Whitman writes from metonymy’s premise; and at times, Whitman thinks about its very presence, or sometimes absence, as the purpose of his poetry.

In this regard, there are any number of catalogs, lists of people, places, and occupations, all of which, as lines, as beautiful and equal fragments of a larger picture, are continuous metonyms. They stop somewhere waiting for us, until we get to the next one. But one passage in particular stands out to me; from “Song of Myself” (1855 version):

The well-taken photographs . . . . but your wife or friend close and solid in your

The fleet of ships of the line and all the modern improvements . . . . but the craft
and pluck of the admiral?
The dishes and fare and furniture . . . . but the host and hostess, and the look out of
their eyes?
The sky up there . . . . yet here or next door or across the way?
The saints and sages in history . . . . but you yourself?

Sermons and creeds and theology . . . . but the human brain, and what is called
reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?

What first seems to be another listing of metonymic identities of great interest to the poet–more parts, more pieces–in fact turns to a focus on what I think of as the absence of the recognition of metonymy. Whitman reminds us, and re-focuses our attention on the fact, that we forget about our relations to things, and so cut ourselves off from those things. It is a version, perhaps, of Emerson’s concern that man is metamorphosed into a thing: we become the photograph, and forget the people it represents. But as I would argue of Emerson’s concern, the problem as I see it–and I think as Whtiman sees it–is not too much metonymy, but too little. We forget that the photograph is not a metaphor, not a fixed and separable symbol only, but something that stands in relation to what it represents and (echoes of that here) how it is made and taken. Whitman reminds us that there is process hidden in all our products.

He plays upon this metonymic regonition rather metonymically in places–for example, in the opening of what becomes “Song of Occupations”–in the condensing and collapsing of types and other words that allow him to conjoin the body of text with the body of author and reader.

COME closer to me,

Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.
This is unfinished business with me . . . . how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.

I pass so poorly with paper and types . . . . I must pass with the contact of bodies
and souls.

In a critical study of Whitman’s language and style, the critic C. Carroll Hollis (Language and Style in Leaves of Grass) refers to this kind of punning as ‘the greatest metonymic trick in poetic history.’ I would add that, as we see here, this metonymy that desires contact leads to Whitman’s ‘you.’ And thus ‘you’ is, you are, part of Whitman’s metonymy. You are no reader, reader; who touches this also helps the writer with his unfinished business. You (you see) means more than you suppose.


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