September 21, 2009

Ben Brishcar for 9-22

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 12:52 pm

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.

5 responses to “Ben Brishcar for 9-22”

  1. Avatar of erinm erinm says:


    This was an interesting post. And you raise an interesting question. Having not looked at the 1867 version of Leaves, I can’t say for certain, but couldn’t it simply be that Whitman was just trying something different structurally with the 1867 edition and not necessarily espousing his “prophetness”, so to speak? especially since you found no evidence of it in the deathbed edition. Also, it seems far fetched that Whitman would take so strong a stance as to proclaim himself prophet since in both song of myself and leaves he seems to always try to keep everything (ie race, religion, good, bad and other dichotomies) on equal footing stating that each thing is good in its own way and no better than any other. But, you given us food for thought with this post and I’ll maybe take a look at that edition and see what I think.

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Awesome O’Connor quote. She’s the bomb. I honestly had never thought about the titling of this poem in 1867 even though I was the one going on about the biblical chapter and verse. I am very interested in this post because it creates a strong tension with My Walt Whitman, the one I have been locating in the humbled and tender Nurse Whitman of the war. Maybe this reflects the horror of that Whitman post-Lincoln and as the painful and corrupt Reconstruction of the Union became a reality.

  3. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    The longer we study “Song of Myself” (or, as you’ve suggested, The Gospel of Walt in this edition), the more I feel myself mutating into a kind of Whitmanly ecclesiastic, scanning the pages with blithe assurance and a seminary smile, and having always at hand a number of instructional sayings and bawdy semi-proverbs straight outta the Good Book of the American roughneck.

    Couldn’t we say that, in the 1867 “Leaves,” Whitman simply models his poetry more visibly on a biblical template that already suits the didactic in his work, since he enjoins every reader to grow from his example in a way that makes rolling around in the soil sound just as devotional as taking the blood and flesh of Christ? (Writhing in the dirt gets you more Whitman skin-bits than a wafer any day!) In response to Erin’s comment, “stating that each thing is good in its own way and no better than any other” sounds like just about as Christly an outlook as possible, though, sadly, I’m more a Whitmanite than a proper theologian by far, so I can’t offer an illuminating Bible verse like I could a stanza of “Leaves.”

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