I’ve been thinking about our discussion in class last week where some people were suspicious of Whitman on the grounds that he says everyone is equal but then clearly elevates himself as prophet or model (see self-reviews for his own discussion of this, by the way). I have had this same reaction to Whitman many times. But the nagging thought for me is that we might be punishing him for embracing democracy and equality— that is, we do not necessarily condemn other poets and writers, who at their essence, if they publish in any way, assert that they too have something to teach us or bear a particular and special word/insight (don’t give me that they write for themselves alone but seek readership. BS). We condemn Whitman because he asserts this baldly even as he says we are all the same. So what don’t we like?
- That he admits the poetic-prophetic role blatantly? (If so, who else will we write off as just egotistical? It’s a long list.)
- That he does so while preaching democracy? (But doesn’t democracy have leaders and spokespeople that are, ideally, representative? Is that a hierarchy or a decent division of labor based on natural abilities and interests? And would it be better to embrace hierarchy, judgment, and inequality in order to establish or justify his elevation as a poet? (See T.S. Eliot, a poet I adore, but please.)
- Is there something about the I of Whitman, the insistence of a lyric voice in poem that, despite his repeated assertions otherwise, is obviously epic in scope and reach, that makes the poetic-prophetic seem like egotism instead of inspiration?