Whitman’s poetic grammar: attending to process

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Poem of the Singers, and of The Words Of Poems” 1856 Leaves of Grass

With the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sends to Emerson a poetry that would seem to be a direct response to his call (in “The Poet”) for a “metre-making argument.” Such is a poetry that moves beyond the conventional forms and metres of poety: a poetry that finds its source in the very forms of America (a poem in our eyes). In his letter back to Emerson, included in the 1856 edition (standing in for the preface, perhaps) Whitman addresses this notion that his poetry, or America’s poetry, is to be “commensurate” with the people he goes among in the city:

These are to be attended to; I am myself more drawn here than to those authors, publishers, importations, reprints, and so forth. [639]

So creating a poetry that attends to the people is one way to describe the “argument” of Leaves of Grass: the poetry derives from the people and finds its audience there as well.

What becomes Section 15 of “Song of Myself” (page 23, beginning with “The pure contralto sings”) provides a good example of this sort of attending. This is the place where the poem turns headlong into its first catalog of people and occupations (as though Whitman is walking with us through the city), attending to them in each line, and in the end, deriving or “weaving” the lines of this very “song of myself” from them, with them. This section is a good example of the significance of metonymy in Whitman. It speaks to the argument that Ed Folsom makes in “Transcendental Poetics”: that Whitman would seem to take Emerson’s notion of the poet’s use of metaphor and emblem and extend it more toward metonymy, “generat[ing] an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough” [270]. And we could extend this to the insight Professor Folsom offers on the Whitman documentary–that Whitman discovers his poetics in walking the city, seeing various people and realizing his relation to them: that could be me; I could be you.

So metonymy is a more specific poetic characteristic of Whitman–a key figure in his poetics, his poetic grammar, so to speak. Think back to the ways we have encountered Emerson’s own interest in metonymy (as he names it in “Poetry and Imagination”); and then consider Whitman as though he is putting this theory of organic or democratic or pragmatic poetics (as I argued in my post on Emerson’s poetics of convertibility) into the practice of his lines. This may make Whitman more or less Emersonian, depending on the lines you have in mind. What other examples of Whitman’s metonymy would you focus on as significant?

I hear it in this moment from “Poem of the Singers, and of the Words of Poems.” Whitman recalls Emerson’s argument from “The Poet” that all people are poets in their interest in song, but the poet has a “finer ear” for receiving and making something of the primal songs. Whitman recalls this, then fulfills it in the lines that emerge, the poem he creates out of the various names for poets and their poems. Notice how his use of repetition, the repeated term “singer” attached to each of the words, itself makes a poetry, a continual rhyme. He makes a poem out of the words of poems. This, too, is metonymy.

The singers are welcomed, understood, appear
often enough—but rare has the day been,
likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker
of poems,
Not every century, or every five centuries, has
contained such a day, for all its names.

 

The singers of successive hours of centuries may
have ostensible names, but the name of each
of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer,
hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer, head-
singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-
singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-singer,
echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, pas-
sion-singer, mystic-singer, weeping-singer,
fable-singer, item-singer, or something else.

 

All this time, and at all times, wait the words of
poems; [1856, p. 263]

The vision of attending to the people, and generating a poetry for them, and of them, or from them, is thus richly metonymic. To echo Emerson from “Experience,” I (and this book, these lines) am a fragment and these are a fragment of me. That line evokes another element of Whitman’s poetic grammar, one explored by Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Fletcher identifies as a key aspect of Whitman’s poetics the grammatical characteristic of middle voice. In short, this is a voice between active and passive–one English doesn’t really have. Fletcher hears it in Whitman’s characteristic use of intransitive verbs and reflexive phrases, in phrasings that “remain perpetually intransitive, like the vast majority of his middle-voicing verbs, his verbs of sensation, perception, and cognition.”  Fletcher goes on to extend this interest in “middle-voicing verbs,” to Whitman’s use of the present participle: “the phrase of the pure verb, the verb before it is locked down into predication” (109). Fletcher also identifies metonymy as crucial to the poetics Whitman invents (with some help from Emerson) for American poetry. This mixture of metonymy and middle voice creates something Fletcher names the “environment-poem” in which the focus of the poetry shifts from conventional categories of substance or product to process.

For in any environment substance is only known and functions only as (and in) process–precisely the subject matter of the new science of Complexity Theory, with its concern for emergent adaptations. The reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book. [173]

So: metonymy, middle voice, anaphora, present participles…. What other elements of Whitman’s poetic grammar do we notice in this evolving environment of Leaves of Grass?

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