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?


Whitman and words

November 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

In “A Backward Glance” Whitman discusses what he calls the “impetus-words” of Leaves of Grass. One of the words he gives is “suggestiveness,” a word that suggests the very importance (and impetus) of words in Whitman’s poetics, his “theory experimental”:  language that connects and communicates to a reader environmentally (the atmosphere of the theme or thought), but also, or therefore, language that leaves things unfinished. “The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine” (480). So, words for this writer are theories, experiments in thinking and doing, and theories take action in words.

So, as you work on Whitman for the writing project, consider his words and their suggestiveness.

For more on Whitman’s interest in language, Ed Folsom has an entire chapter on “Whitman and Dictionaries” in Walt Whitman’s Native Representations. Whitman writes about his own interests in words and language in something of his own dictionary, An American Primer.

As far as critical resources to use for your project, for further investigation into Whitman’s words.

The OED, of course. And for a dictionary closer to Whitman’s time and writing, you can explore the 1828 edition of Webster’s. There is also an interesting web dictionary you might consider, Wordnik.

And finally, to track Whitman’s words within his work, explore TokenX at the Whitman Archive.

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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