Allison For Sept. 8

Whitman reveals through his poetry a certain fascination with the relationship between the part to the whole. He meanders through ideas questioning the authority of the whole over its parts, or whether the parts control the whole, and the intricate, inseparable mingling of many pieces joining together to form  one “big picture.” With this, Whitman illustrates America. He describes the man, the buildings, the city, the state, the nation, the world, and the universe (though not always in that order), and, in doing so, paints the image of a nation that is diverse in its parts and cohesive as a whole.

In more than one poem, though “Song of The Open Road” most notably, Whitman urges his reader to go out and explore America.  He boasts of America like it is a secret vacation destination that only celebrities know about: “Listen! I will be honest with you, I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.” It’s almost as if he is saying, “why go to dilapidated Rome or dingy Athens, when you could go explore something that few people have ever seen before?” America is such a gem, in fact, that only the best and brightest should be allowed in: “only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies, no diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.” Despite this statement, Whitman is not an elitist, he praises the farmer, the lumberjack, the soldiers, the common man, because these make up the “rough new prizes” that America has to offer. America is begging to be experienced, to be discovered and cherished, and Whitman is using his poetry as a soap-box to proclaim this fact. There is more to Whitman’s message than  just traveling and sight-seeing; he yearns for each reader to realize that there is so much more to know than our small, individual spheres of influence : “to know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for travelling souls.” There is so much more than the several hundred faces we have memorized, or the many paths we have mapped out, or the countless schemas implanted in our brains. As much as we may think we know, there is always infinitely more. Whitman humbly suggests that we each make some sort of attempt to know more, to experience more, even if it is just one infinitesimal part of a gigantic whole.

Whitman sees the people of America as the colorful specks that make up a beautiful Monet painting. Each speck would appear meaningless on its own, but plays a vital role in creating the entire composition. Whitman states this outright in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” when he comments that great people are what makes a great city: “a great city is that which has the greatest men and women, if it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.” The buildings are secondary, according to Whitman, which perhaps explains why he describes the “landscape” of Manhattan and of Kentucky with the same fervor. There is debate about whether Whitman is a “city” poet or a “nature” poet, well I argue that he is a “people” poet. “Song of Occupations” alone could testify to that. Whitman worships Man, not God, and time and time again in his poetry emphasizes that it is common man that makes America a great nation: “where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay” (355). To Whitman, America is not a flag or a figure head, but a vibrant collection of souls and life.

  1. Avatar of jpike1

    #1 by jpike1 on September 8, 2009 - 4:13 pm

    Your comment of Whitman as a “people poet” is eloquently put. He definitely tries to relate to everyone in American and wants them to “be alert and construct the poem”. He calls out to all readers throughout each poem, but these lines from “Song of The Open Road” especially relate to what you are discussing: “Whoever you are, come forth!” (306). I feel that Whitman is so excessive in his writing in an effort to relate to readers. If readers can see themselves as “Young fellows working on farms”, “ignorant”, and “poor”, (357) “wife”, and “daughter” (356) then readers will examine the poem with a critical eye and keep reading his works.

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