The Gospel According to Walt
Let me start this by saying that I think I enjoyed Walt Whitman far more when I had to make the leap to proclaim him prophet. Now, granted, it wasn’t that far of a logical stretch to assume that that was the voice he was going for in the 1855 edition of ‘Leaves’, but it was at least a stretch left to the readers. This implied some sort of authorial trust, that he might not tell everyone that he is a prophet but he will leave it to you to figure it out for yourself. The tone was breakneck and because of this the inherent arrogance was, at some level, charming. Along the same line, I can tolerate the shameless self-promoter in Whitman because of the shear novelty and ridiculousness of the idea of him writing his own shining reviews. I can even, somewhat, get behind his vision of himself as the great American poet.
Now, the version of ‘Song of Myself’ in the 1867 edition of ‘Leaves’, this one tests the limits of arrogance that I’m able to accept from Whitman as a reader. The first offense here is in the title, no ‘Leaves of Grass’ or ‘Song of Myself’ here, just the poets name. Now there is only one thing that is invoked when you have a work written by someone and title it with the author’s name, and that is biblical narrative. Specifically, here Whitman is putting his own name in a tradition of either the prophets of the Old Testament or with the Gospel writers of the New Testament, meaning that he’s putting himself on par with either those who have heard the word of G-d directly or those who either hung with Jesus or hung out with people who hung out with Jesus.
Now theoretically, does this give Whitman the narrative authority he is constantly grasping for? Yes, but that only works if your audience buys it. If this foray into the extremely religious ended at the title, though, I’d be more apt to accept it, the problem is that it doesn’t. The very poem itself has now been split up into chapter and verse, as if one, when quoting ‘Walt Whitman’ the poem, could add in ‘Whitman 9/17’ or something of that like.
I guess this whole thing comes back to a level of trust and mystery I’ve come to expect from most writers, and until this point has proven true of Whitman. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, great writing requires understanding of two concepts, mystery and manners. In structuring this version of ‘Leaves’ in the manner that he did, I feel that Whitman flubbed the mystery and in doing so, forgot his manners. If you feel that you are writing the poem that will change the world, then let your poem speak as a poem that will change the world, and don’t try and make a religion out of it. Thankfully, looking ahead, this challenge was fixed in the deathbed addition.