Whitman to Emerson: whoever you are

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

In the poem that emerges in the 1856 edition, “Poem of You, Whoever You Are,” I hear Emerson, though more in the sense of Whitman responding to him, talking back–perhaps even talking to him. I note that this is the edition where Whitman publishes as an appendix his letter to Emerson, responding to Emerson’s letter (infamously excerpted by Whitman on the book’s spine); the letter where Whitman refers to Emerson as his ‘friend’ and “Master.” Could the ‘master’ of this poem, then, also be Emerson–and Emerson be Whitman’s ‘whoever you are’?

Theoretically, yes, given the capacity of Whitman’s ‘you’ and the logic of ‘whoever.’ But reading this poem tonight, in the context of thinking about Emerson in Whitman, and Whitman’s response to Emerson, I begin to see more in Whitman’s poem that can speak to Emerson more specifically: the focus on the intrinsic (Emerson also says you have slumbered all your life–Whitman just addresses ‘you’ where Emerson uses the more distant ‘we’ in ‘Experience’; the focus on pain and dissolution. Here is the poem. What do you think?

10—Poem of You, Whoever You Are.

WHOEVER you are, I fear you are walking
the walks of dreams,
I fear those realities are to melt from under your
feet and hands;
Even now, your features, joys, speech, house,
trade, manners, troubles, follies, costume,
crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me,
They stand forth out of affairs—out of commerce,
shops, law, science, work, farms, clothes, the
house, medicine, print, buying, selling, eating,
drinking, suffering, begetting, dying,
They receive these in their places, they find these
or the like of these, eternal, for reasons,
They find themselves eternal, they do not find that
the water and soil tend to endure forever —
and they not endure.
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you,
that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love
none better than you.
O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long
ago,
I should have blabbed nothing but you, I should
have chanted nothing but you.
I will leave all, and come and make the hymns
of you;
None have understood you, but I understand you,
None have done justice to you, you have not done
justice to yourself,
None but have found you imperfect, I only find no
imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he
who will never consent to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master,
owner, better, god, beyond what waits intrin-
sically in yourself.
Painters have painted their swarming groups, and
the centre figure of all,
From the head of the centre figure spreading a
nimbus of gold-colored light,
But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head
without its nimbus of gold-colored light,
From my hand, from the brain of every man and
woman it streams, effulgently flowing forever.

O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about
you!
You have not known what you are—you have
slumbered upon yourself all your life,
Your eye-lids have been as much as closed most
of the time,
What you have done returns already in mock-
eries,
Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not
return in mockeries, what is their return?
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you,
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the
night, the accustomed routine, if these con-
ceal you from others, or from yourself, they
do not conceal you from me,
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure
complexion, if these balk others, they do
not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deformed attitude, drunken-
ness, greed, premature death, all these I part
aside,
I track through your windings and turnings—I
come upon you where you thought eye should
never come upon you.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is
not tallied in you,

There is no virtue, no beauty, in man or woman
but as good is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is
in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal plea-
sure waits for you.
As for me, I give nothing to any one, except I
give the like carefully to you,
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God,
sooner than I sing the songs of the glory of
you.
Whoever you are, you are to hold your own at
any hazard,
These shows of the east and west are tame com-
pared to you,
These immense meadows, these interminable riv-
ers—you are immense and interminable as
they,
These furies, elements, storms, motions of nature,
throes of apparent dissolution—you are he
or she who is master or mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over nature,
elements, pain, passion, dissolution.
The hopples fall from your ankles! you find an
unfailing sufficiency!

Old, young, male, female, rude, low, rejected by
the rest, whatever you are promulges itself,
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are
provided, nothing is scanted,

Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance,
ennui, what you are picks its way.

[from the Whitman Archive]

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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
arms?

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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