The Gossip of Flames: Becoming Opposite Equals in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . always a breed of life.
[3]

In today’s lecture, I am going to address two seemingly simple questions:

1. How does Whitman’s poetry work in “Song of Myself”?

2. What does Whitman’s poetry mean in “Song of Myself”?

I believe that the answer to the first question, how does it work, is crucial to understanding the answer to the second question, what does it mean, perhaps as much as for any poet before or after Whitman. As we have progressed more than halfway through “Song of Myself”, we have all noticed that Whitman does not shy away from incorporating big questions, about good and evil, life and death, sexual ecstasy and brutal violence.

My more specific interpretive question revolves around the lines in my epigraph above, namely, the theme of “opposite equals,” the way they are “knit” together into a singular “identity.” The theme is a challenging one in Whitman, although one that his reader’s often avoid without knowing. It is challenging not simply because it is an abstract philosophical paradox, like those found in the Tao Te Ching that many of you read last semester; it is challenging because it is a very concrete problem in a country riven by strife, strife that will soon erupt into the bloodiest war in American history. Whitman is aware of this challenge, and his Leaves of Grass is a response to it, not just in its content, but in the very form of the poem itself.

To give a précis of the argument: the form of Whitman’s poetry is metonymic, building disparate connections into a grander whole, and this metonymic form reflects and performs a knitting together of opposites in a manner that avoids an attitude of resentment toward life and argues for embracing flux and change—becoming—over static forms of identity—being. In the next section, we’ll deal with the metonymic nature of Whitman’s poem.

Ansel Adams, Grass Meadow, Late Evening, Yosemite Valley (1944)

I. And, And, And, And; or, How Whitman’s Poetry Works

Flip to section [31]. Don’t focus too closely yet, but simply look at the form the poem takes here. Zooming out, the pattern is easy to see, and with just a little more work we can quantify it: starting in section [30], Whitman starts 14 out of 16 verses with the word “And.” Immediately thereafter, he starts another 9 lines with the phrase “In vain.” What is going on here? To answer this question, we need to first think a little more deeply about how language itself works to see how Whitman’s language here is working on us.

In his famous 1956 essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson identified two poles of language: the metaphoric and the metonymic.

“The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The METAPHORIC way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the METONYMIC way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively.” (Fundamentals of Language, 90)

Jakobson identifies these two poles that govern the movement of language by looking at a medical disorder, aphasia. Or rather, two medical disorders, each caused by organic trauma to different areas of the brain (think: a railroad spike through the head, like the famous Phineas Gage), and which prevented people from using either metaphor or metonymy when they spoke. It’s quite fascinating, and Jakobson discusses how it relates to art and poetry as well; you can find the essay and read more about it online just by googling it.

In any case, metaphor equates things together, building an identity or equivalence between different things; metonymy links different things that are close together. Metaphor stacks meaning vertically; metonymy moves sideways. The example Jakobson gives is a word-association test: you say the word “hut.” A metaphorical response, which builds an identity: “is a poor little house”; a metonymic response, which brings in contiguous associations: “burnt out” (91).

But let’s take an example from Whitman, the end of [26]. Here, in about half a page or so, we go from “the echo of sunset” to the “orbic flex of [a tenor’s] mouth” to whirling “wider than Uranus flies” to “bare feet … licked by the indolent waves” to “the puzzle of puzzles/And that we call being.” That is an amazingly long journey, and I skipped several steps. This ever expanding movement outward is characteristic of Whitman’s poetry. The poet chains together long, seemingly divergent descriptions, such as the long section [33], which starts a line with “Where” 35 times and “I” 22 times. As if free associating, Whitman moves from place to place, person to person, idea to idea, ever onward.

It is characteristic, and it is appropriate. This aspect of the form of Whitman’s poetry is part and parcel of its content. It embodies his broader democratic project: “I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy” [24]. In essence, Whitman is arguing that to be the poet of America, as Professor Vollrath’s lecture showed he most certainly aspires to be, is to engage in a project of radical, ever-expanding inclusion. This is where the central image of leaves of grass comes in; the leaves of the book are also leaves of grass. Grass is an organism with no true center, a single entity yet infinitely complex and connected with the world around it. Grass grows through the middle. Every blade of grass is similar, yet slightly different; out of all those little differences emerges one greater whole, but a whole that, despite being made of similar but different parts, presents an aspect of diversity, of non-uniformity. As Whitman famously says in section [6]:

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Yet it is also precisely in this moment that the problem, the difficulty in what Whitman is attempting emerges. How can you reconcile black and white in a nation that will, in less than a decade, fit a war over slavery? Is such a reconciliation even desirable?

Paul Klee, In the Grass (1930)

II. The Plenum of Proof; or, What Whitman’s Poetry Means

I hear the bravura of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . . gossip of flames . . . . clack of sticks cooking my meals. [26]

Let us put this problem as sharply as possible: if the master and the slave are opposites equals, is Whitman’s attempt to knit the two together into a single identity not an\ violence to the latter and an apology for the former? Should we, in fact, choose not to knit the slaveholder into the poem of America?

Receiving black folk and white alike sounds good in the abstract, but Whitman characteristically does not allow it to remain abstract. He is talking about real people, with real problems, who he wants to find the best in, each and every one. From section [16]:

One of the great nations, the nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth.

A Southerner as soon as a Northerner, and a planter at that. Whitman constantly does this, balancing one perspective with another, opposing perspectives, not letting one predominate; this includes his references to slavery. Take the following lines from section [8] of “The Sleepers,” another poem in Leaves of Grass: “The call of the slave is one with the master’s call . . . . and the master salutes the slave.” Now, I’m not going to answer the question of whether or not Whitman is successful in what he attempts here, but I would like to come back to something I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, about how readers of “Song of Myself” have a tendency to internalize the things they like and ignore or avoid the things they don’t. Whitman is aware of this desire to avoid the unpleasant, to exclude it from the realm of life, to cut it out of his song. Death, shit, the stench of unwashed bodies, semen, blood, gore, venereal disease, pain, smallpox scars, suicide, what Whitman calls in a later poem in Leaves of Grass, “The Body Electric” is also at the same time for the poet the body electric broken. Maimed. Diseased. Murdered. Enslaved.

Whitman refuses to avoid this truth, and he is not ignorant of its consequences. The streets of New York City that he roams as a “rough” are the streets of Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), the streets that will explode into the racial violence and lynching of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. This is the America in which Senator Charles Sumner will be brutally beaten on the Senate floor by a southern Representative offended by his abolitionist politics and where Bleeding Kansas has already begun. Whitman’s expansive vision of American inclusion is not in spite of this violence, it is because of it. Whitman knows the world he lives in, and he makes sure to punctuate his song of himself with it so that the reader cannot forget it. “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” [6]. Perhaps this is why he warns us early on about becoming intoxicated in the sensuous world he confronts us with as well [2].

In short, Whitman’s inclusion of the Southern planter is a conscious choice, a choice that is not secondary to his project, but central to it. Why? I think there are two answers to this question, two philosophical objections that Whitman has to such an exclusion. The first is general: rejecting any part of life builds in a resentment toward the present, a hatred of the world as it is that Whitman believes is the root of violence in the first place. The second is both general and specific: Whitman’s ultimate ethical principle is that the world is not static, but changing. To exclude any one thing does so on the basis that it could not become otherwise; it locks identity in place, and presupposes that meaning, and the world of meanings, cannot change. That is precisely what the poet does not want to happen; indeed, poetry itself is for Whitman the making-happen of that change. Whitman is a visionary of America, of America as a series of potentials, not free of violence, but open to change.

Ansel Adams, Grass and Pool, Sierra Nevada (n.d.)

i. Resentment

One of the constant imperatives of “Song of Myself” is that the “least” will not be excluded, and in the imperative to include the “least” is the argument that they are not the “least” at all. Thus, the negative eulogy (“Nor”, “Nor”, “Nor,” &c) at the end of section [43] begins with “I cannot fail …” and concludes with “Nor the present, nor the least.” I cannot fail the present, nor the least. This is the necessary conclusion of the shocking statement at the beginning of the poem, that there “will never be any more perfection than there is now” [3]. We could multiply examples of this gesture in Whitman, that of the perfection of the present moment, ad infinitum. But before we get to the why of this perfection, let’s think about the what of it, What are it’s implications?

It seems that what Whitman is arguing against here is a certain attitude toward life, one that sees the world as it is and can only see its flaws and failures. This attitude is what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would later call ressentiment in his work On the Genealogy of Morality, which we often read in The Human Situation. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by authors such as Emerson, and we can see a strong affinity between Whitman’s argument for the perfection of the world and Nietzsche’s critique of an attitude of resentment toward life, of a way of perceiving the world as imperfect, fallen, broken, flawed, disgusting and only redeemable if fundamentally changed. Far from such an attitude being an accommodation to the status quo, with all its flaws, Nietzsche saw as the root of those flaws this resentful attitude toward life, a hatred of the world. The following lines from [22] would fit just as well in Nietsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:

What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Ultimately, the question is, how do we understand what Whitman means by perfection? In the logic of section [3], is it that the slavery is also a form of perfection, or is that the slave is as perfect of a being as everyone else? The former is an apology for domination, while the latter is a radical vision of equality, a revolutionary vision. I think it is almost certainly the latter, and to offer some proof we will turn to another philosophical concept that comes after and is inspired by Whitman’s poetry, that of the precedence of becoming over being, of flux and change over static identity.

ii. Becoming

Let’s finish these musings up with a return to the question of metaphor and metonymy and the extended section of the poem on a runaway slave. Of course, even poetry which is predominantly metonymic still involves metaphors; the two poles of language are ultimately inseparable, so our analysis is interested in which one predominates and what effects that predomination has. Take the following passage from section [33].

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me . . . . crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence . . . . my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses and haul close,
They taunt my dizzy ears . . . . beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

One objection to my insistence on metonymy, of building linkages between disparate elements, of slippage, connection, and cataloguing (Professor Vollrath again), is that there is one statement that reigns over the poem, and that statement is the ultimate metaphoric statement: “I am ….” Indeed, we see it in the above passage, whose very premise we might question: what is the ethical right of Whitman, a white man, to pretend to understand, much less inhabit, the suffering of a runaway slave? Is this not an unconscionable appropriation of that experience?

Perhaps. But I think that Whitman’s use of “I am” is much less metaphoric than it seems at first. Even in the passage above, look how it changes from beginning to end:

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person.

The twentieth-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued that Western thought has been obsessed with the question of pinpointing the nature of things-in-themselves (being), and that this has obscured the fundamentally fluctuating, changing nature of those things (becoming). In short, when we focus on the nature of what things are, we necessarily foreclose the basic fact that they can become different. We focus on objects, and not the relations these objects have to everything else around them. Whitman, despite his focus on the “I am,” seems much more interested in the question of flux, change, and becoming, of the relations between different parts of the world rather than their identity. In fact, the sheer profusion of “I am” proves this: no one person can be all these things, but one person can become connected to them, can write them into their poem. In the passage on the runaway slave, we see this philosophical transmutation happen in the words themselves, from being to becoming. I think this is the wager that Whitman is making, that a poetics of radical inclusion is ultimately one that does not colonize the world with the ego of the poet and lock it in place, but one that allows the poet, the reader, and thus the world to become something other than it is, something perfect in the same manner as before, but with a difference. As Whitman says later in the poem:

These become mine and me every one, and they are but little,
I become as much more as I like
. [36]

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Wild Geese and Autumn Grass (detail, 1845)


Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”

Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows

This poem is one of the first things I ever posted here, about four years ago today. It’s hard to agree with Whitman, that the heart of the day is not in the chosen, but in the choosing. 

It is hard to agree, though like all hard things that does not mean the poet is wrong. 

Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”