Whitman’s Gymnastic Reading

October 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Where does Whitman leave us as readers? Once we put his book down, where are we? I think for Whitman, the answer is that we are never far from that book, even if we are meant to leave the book behind. Think of the various images Whitman presents for the metonymic relation he desires and asserts between his writing and his reader.

The closing lines of “Song of Myself”: “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles/… I stop somewhere waiting for you”

The closing  lines from “So Long!” that Whitman adds in 1860 to close Leaves of Grass:

This is no book,
Who touches this, touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease
calls me forth.

Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (a long essay he writes in the late 1860s) suggests why he is hesitant to define things:

Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

And, it might not surprise you, the ways that Whitman, late in his life, recounts his relation to Emerson and what he calls “Emersonianism.” Whitman presents the relation as a resistance. This is from an 1880 essay titled “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)” which concludes:

The reminiscence that years ago I began like most youngsters to have a touch (though it came late, and was only on the surface) of Emerson-on-the-brain—that I read his writings reverently, and address’d him in print as “Master,” and for a month or so thought of him as such—I retain not only with composure, but positive satisfaction. I have noticed that most young people of eager minds pass through this stage of exercise.    6
  The best part of Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently—no truer evolutionist.

What makes these lines and words “metonymic,” or an element of Whitman’s metonymic poetics? It is the relation, the “touch,” asserted (and desired) between the various elements of the poet (writing, words, books, pages, ideas. language, voice) and the persons receiving that touch, the audience, the reader (his or her hands, holding the book, eyes reading the pages). Metonymy, recall, is the figure of contextual and contiguous (near, touching) relationship: the part that tells a larger story of a larger whole to which it relates. The writing–and by extension for Whitman, the writer–is condensed into the language, thereby making it communicable to a reader, making it available for travel across the gulf of great differences and distances (“distance avails not”). And, this condensation of meaning, even as it enables translation to a reader, demands of that reader an active role in the process of translation. The reader has to uncompress what has been compressed. The reader, as Whitman assumes, has to finish the book.

Where do we see this in Whitman’s poetry?

How does this relate to Emerson’s poetics–his theory of poetry?

Do we see something different with Dickinson, whose shorter poems would seem to rely more on the incredible force of metaphor?


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