Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Whitman and Dickinson


People are really hating on Walt Whitman, so I think it's necessary to provide him with a little bit of a defense. First I'd like to speak to Whitman's egotism, or perceived egotism. We all know that Whitman is often lumped in with the transcendentalists, or rather the most famous transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, but I'm not sure he fits into that category. This sounds completely ridiculous, but I think Whitman transcends transcendentalism. I'll give you an example: Thoreau and Emerson didn't really give a fuck about women's issues. I mean, Emerson's ideas about self-reliance probably support the notion of women's liberation, but he certainly never singles out the issue in his writing. Thoreau never discusses women's issues either. I can't break bad on them too much because they did write several works on the terrible injustices of slavery, the Mexican-American War, and treatment of Native Americans, but the point is, Walt Whitman was the only male transcendentalist to discuss women's equality in his poetry. He speaks about women as his sisters, and says that men and women are of equal importance. There is a passage (not included in our text's excerpt) that proves my point:

I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp'd slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

With everything I mentioned above in mind, I don't really see Whitman as a super egotistical person. I mean, I know he wrote those favorable reviews about his own work and submitted them to newspapers, but that's just really funny, not really egotistical. Whitman just writes about everything. I think there are a lot of similarities between Whitman and Kenneth Koch, as far as their poetry is concerned. Neither of them have a filter for the material they consider worthy of being in a poem. They seem to find inspiration in everything, and their poems are an attempt to capture their own amazement and curiosity about the world around them.

One of my favorite passages from Song of Myself is "And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God, / For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, / (No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and / about Death.) / I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the / least..." Whitman is stepping away from traditional notions about God and religion, in that he finds more interest and beauty among human beings. God is not of interest, but the many individuals Whitman encounters are infinitely fascinating.

I know this is total blasphemy, but I like Walt Whitman more than Emily Dickinson. That's not to say I dislike Dickinson's poetry because I do enjoy her work, but I've never found it as interesting as Whitman's poetry. I realize Dickinson's poetry can be dissected, and that one may find a lot of meaning within her poems, but I'm drawn to Whitman's longer cataloging style. I find Emily Dickinson to be a fascinating person, and that she, Whitman, Fanny Fern, and Margaret Fuller are integral to the Transcendentalist movement, and add some much needed perspective.

I know it takes some time to get used to Whitman's style, but you just have to push through it. Admittedly, I didn't like Whitman the first time I read him, but now I like his work more every time I read it. It's too bad our text doesn't include the full version of Song of Myself, though it's easy enough to find it online, nor does it include my favorite Whitman poem I Sing the Body Electric, but I think that poem might be a little too...um, intense...for the anthology.


Lilly said...

The expression of the face balks account;
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists;
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him;" (Whitman, I sing the body electric)

I love this. Way to point out a sweet poem.

Annie Lo said...

Hey, I took a whole class on Whitman and Emily Dickinson at PSU and I completely agree with your thoughts. This is a running monologue of how I felt about the class. I think its fucking hilarious Whitman wrote reviews of his own work and sent them out, its not like he was the Andy Warhol of poetry.