Tuesday, September 01st, 2009 | Author:

Those of you who have suffered through other courses and projects with me know that one of my enduring obsessions is the dialogic and poetry.  Dialogic can mean admitting or representing more than one or many voices, but a much richer definition would insist that it is more fundamentally an ethical encounter with the other (voice, being, world view, mind…), an openness to and responsibility for the other, who/which also brings the same to me.  Theorists of ethics and literature think, among other things, about ways that this ethical relation is represented in AND produced by a piece of literature, whether in the characters of a text or in the reader’s relationship to the textual other.  For years Whitman, especially in “Song of Myself,”  has been one of the most confounding figures for me to think about through this lens, and some of you in your blog posts for 9/1 are also struggling with it (e.g., Sam P, Jessica, Ben, Meghan, Erin— you guys really have me thinking).  To wit (NOT twit), how can Whitman be, in my students’ words, messianic, prophetic, Biblical, authoritative, self-inflating but also have a relationship with the reader that is intimate, empowering, like a lover, inviting journey and witness, democratic, inclusive?  The latter Whitman (note to self: decide if this is part of the womanly Whitman I am seeking and if I am coding authoritative as masculine) emerges tenderly in the prose writing from the Civil War that we will be reading in a month or so.  But “Song of Myself” captures its ambivalence and contradiction in its very title, since it proclaims itself as a monologue, but really only if we can see the speaker as collective, a nation, both transcendent and painstakingly positioned (a kosmos, for god’s sake).  When he fetches us “flush” with himself, is that making us equals, or demanding that we march lockstep? 

Whitman describes his words as “omniverous”  and says that the poet is “not one of the chorus.”  His voice is “orotund, sweeping, and final” (one of my favorite lines, but not exactly dialogic).  My students in the past have found his inclusion of the slave, the weeping widow, and others to be not inclusive but appropriative.  What do we do with one of the most splendid passages of Song, “Through me many long dumb voices” (50-51), which announces that the poet  and his text will ethically include and represent the oppressed other, but does so only by insisting on his/its own power (“Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured”)?  (Sam P, you’re right on the money in seeing the slippage at these moments).

I don’t want to end by saying he contradicts himself.  I want better clarity on this plaguing issue this semester.  But for today I will throw in one more piece, some ethical literary theory that Erin and others are approaching already, and that is the function of the “you” address in Whitman.  A critic I really admire, William Waters, writes about the lyric “you” in his work, saying that it is a pronoun which “tends to hail; it calls everyone and everything by their inmost name. . . . One can read unidentified ‘I’ or ‘she’ with comparatively small concern, but the summons of unidentified ‘you’ restlessly tugs at us, begging identification” (1996, 130).  Waters’ choice of the term “identification” is deliberate—not only do we wish to ascertain an identity for the “you,” but we may ourselves identify with it.  The reader may feel that she, as Waters writes, “(implausible as it may be) . . . is the poem’s intended addressee.”   When Whitman repeatedly, in quiet confidences and throbbing insistences, addresses “you” (who, me? you talkin’ to me, old man?), I feel called out, or called in, or called over.  

Whitman’s poem offers a vision of democracy, of poetry, of nature, of the divine, of love, of war, and more.  And since the dialogic must be reciprocal, then, if we are actively addressed by the poem by the you address, if we ourselves want to be ethical, answerable readers,  we must consider what Waters asks: “How will we stand?” (130)


Waters, William. 1996.  “Answerable Aesthetics: Reading ‘You’ in Rilke.”  Comparative Literature 48.2 (Spring): 128-149.

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