It's the poetry, stupid

Last week in my Humanities course we spent a little time with Romantic poetry. The students read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, but I also had them read a bit of Emerson and then, of course, the opening lines of Song of Myself.

Going over the poem in class was like finding my religion again:
I explained to them the etymology of the term Romanticism and how it came from romanz, an older word meaning a hero's quest or adventure. I told them that Whitman was indeed setting out on a quest:
I, now, thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping not to cease until death.
And then I walked them through that famous first line, asking them why he wrote "I sing myself" rather than "I sing about myself." We also keyed on the verb sing and how often it appears in the opening of epic poems:

Sing, goddess, of Achilles anger--Iliad
I sing of arms and the man--Aeniad
Songs of course have both symbolic and physical components. They are the representation of ideas but also the sound waves shot into the air. You can't say you have sung without making some noise, and Song of Myself certainly celebrates the physicality of sound. Speech becomes frosty breaths swirling in the breeze. It becomes "echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers" and "belch'd words... loos'd to the eddies of the wind." Indeed the entire poem seems to be there in those first few lines. Whitman wants to get the reader to recognize that the power to confer meaning on the world--to speak, to sing--is not his alone but the reader's as well.

It turns out we are the origin of all poems, the "single singing artificers" as Wallace Stevens put it. It's all there in those pronouns: I, the doer of the action, the singer of the song, and myself, its reflexive, receiving object. And laying all this out in class I got quite swept away again with admiration for Whitman's simple and unintimidating genius, for his love of the reader and his desire to give us his gift. I always point out when teaching Song of Myself that the first word of the poem is I, but the last is you.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I have been so consumed with core revisions, with course scheduling, with the endless grading of endless papers that I somehow forgot it was a love for poetry which brought me into this business. And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, there was Walt, waiting just like he said.


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