Monday, January 31, 2011

Open Thread for Marcuse/Whitman


  1. The verse on p. 6 of "Song of Myself" has long been one of my favorite poetic verses:

    "The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
    And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
    And cease teh moment life appeared.

    All goes onward and outward.... and nothing collapses,
    And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

    The choice of the word "luckier" in the last line has always appealed to me. Whitman is not only saying here that life never ends, because it provides the resources for new life; he is also offering a sense of perfection to the death of a human. We do not disintegrate into ashes or merely decompose into filth; we are alive so that other life can form. We fertilize the grass and allow it to prosper. Our bodies become one with the earth, and return to the minerals and organisms that we were born from. And it is lucky that we are a part of the cycle of perfection in nature, that even in death nothing ends. This verse is hopeful; instead of mourning, we may celebrate the blades of grass as the hair on a lover's chest. The souls of the people of our past are always around us, beneath our feet and growing amongst us.

  2. For me, the shift from Marcuse’s disheartening outlook on contemporary society and Butler’s near apocalyptic world to the bright and flowing language of Whitman was welcomed with open arms. While I will openly admit that poetry has never made much sense to me, I think that having the other two works gave me a foundation and “lens” by which to analyze Song of Myself. I will also openly admit that I by no means feel that I fully understand the extent of Whitman’s purpose of this work but that is not to say that I feel there is no critical value to the piece. I think, specifically, that the author makes some very interesting claims and points about religion that I would like to further investigate in class but will begin to outline here.
    It seemed to me that while Whitman embodied a common religious view that “…all men born are also my brothers” (11), he did not feel obligation or obedience to one particular doctrine. Rather, he seems to follow the same philosophy as does Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower in that he feels more of a responsibility to take charge of his future. Instead of waiting for some form of divine intervention to guide his decisions, Whitman states that “what is commonest…and easiest is Me…not waiting for the sky to cast its goodwill down upon me,” (19). The difference in their course of action after having cast aside the familiar concept of religion is that Lauren creates her own brand of the church while Whitman simply decides that he is part of all religions. There is no one God whose rules he must abide by but he is, in part, composed of every God. Both Walt Whitman and Butler’s protagonist feel that a “god” is simply a means by which to better develop the self, Whitman stating that he “accepts the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself,” (55). I am very interested to discuss then what the implications are of Whitman’s various, smaller vignettes throughout his piece if it is not the creation of God that he is praising.

  3. A section on page 17 of Whitman really caught my eye:

    "In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
    And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

    And I know I am solid and sound,
    To me converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
    All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.


    I exist as I am, that is enough,
    If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
    And if each and all be aware I sit content."

    I find it very interesting how Whitman defines himself through other people and things, even in such an individualistic culture as ours. I bet that not many people, if any at all, would be in the same mind frame as Whitman if they were asked to describe/define themselves.

    I also like how he sees the world as almost hidden messages. Many people take for granted all that is around us and that we have or are given. He takes the time to "listen" and appreciate everything. He is also happy with just being, whether or not anyone knows that he exists.

  4. In “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, I came across one of my favorite quotes of all time:

    “What is that you express in your eyes?
    It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life” (10).

    I think this quote sums up the truth that if an essay is worth 750 words, and a picture is worth a thousand words, then a look from someone can be worth infinitely many words. A look can be both completely understood and completely puzzling at the same time. I was really excited to see this quote in the poem, which I didn’t know was from this collection.

    On pages 27-31 Whitman gives nearly every animal imaginable a mention and slight description. He says that these animals neither make him sick with their weeping, nor whine or sweat. Does this mean Whitman is putting down humans and their negative attitudes, while praising animals for being in a way indifferent and succumbing to their surroundings?

    On page 34 when I read the line “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person,” I immediately thought of Lauren Olamina and her hyperempathy syndrome. Whitman and Lauren both claim to be able to feel the pain of the wounded. Did anyone else feel like Whitman was sort of touching on the subject of hyperempathy in "Parable of the Sower" , even if his words were written long before Octavia Butler’s?

  5. So after reading Song of Myself, I am confused on a lot, poetry is like a foreign language to me. Is this supposed to be a timeline of Whitman's life, or maybe just different issues in his life that he found completed him, or something completely different? Passages that I could especially use some clarity on is 9 and 29.

    In the very beginning of the book I really like what he said about reading. "You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself." I atleast took that as; reading this book could be interpreted different ways. That all poetry can be interpreted differently by each individual reader.

    And just a random side note, at times he reminded me of Lauren from Parable of the Sower because he sees himself in everyone, because at one certain time he even briefly mentioned feeling the pain of others.

  6. "These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

    If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,"

    One of the main points presented in "song of myself" and leaves of grass as a whole is the universality of all things and in this sense ideas and poetry. Marcuse however, seems to believe that the integration of the arts results in "repressive desublimation"(Marcuse 72). I feel as if the entire philosophy of leaves of grass and Whitman for that matter is a complete denouncement of Marcuse's ideas on art.

    In high school i was taught (this could be wrong) that the title leaves of grass meant something to the effect of a collection of unremarkable work and that Whitman was intentionally considering his work unremarkable thus making his ideas universal.
    Going along with this explanation it seems that repressive desublimation isn't a negative result of the integration of art but instead an undeniable truth, at least to Whitman.

  7. I read "Song of Myself" in a class last semester called American Literary Traditions. It was part of a unit called "Defining a Nation." I find it fascinating to consider the difference in the meaning of the poem when you view it through a different lens... In the class we discussed the poem as Whitman reveling in America and defining himself through the freedom he felt. However, viewing the poem through the utopian/dystopian filter of this class, the poem becomes a medium for Whitman to potentially express his hope. Whitman seems to see the world he lives in as near-perfect already. He revels in every small detail he absorbs and in every experience he lives. He is in his own utopia.

    Also of interest to me is Whitman's optimism. It seems that in modern times many authors, especially American ones, have become fascinated with being damaged. They take pride in being troubled and jaded, and look down on happy people as simply blind. Whitman unabashedly expresses his joy at the imperfections and small details of life. He ends the poem with what feels like an epitaph- "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, // If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."

    Whitman's discussion of his feeling of sharing with the world ties this poem to Butler. However, even here he is more optimistic than Butler in that he shares mostly joy and a positive, constructive connection to others and the universe.

  8. In Whitman's "Song of Myself" (7) I was both interested yet confused. When he starts of with the question, "Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?" I think this is such an interesting way at looking at birth. He continues and begins to talk about people and says people are "just as immortal and fathomless as myself; They do not know how immortal, but I know." He list some things and I don't understand how he knows these things but other people don't. I think the meaning may lie in the last section that starts with, "Who need be afraid of the merge?" I'm not sure if he is talking, either other Earth like planets or males and females or most likely something different?

  9. What is the significance of the following lines to the poem as a whole?
    "I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe...and am not contained between my hat and boots, And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good".

  10. I have to agree with those who wrote before me; poetry is not my strong suit. Hopefully I can learn some techniques in picking such literature apart.
    As I was thinking this and reading, Whitman caught me in the act. He asks, “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” (Second phase). This brings to the issue of metacommentary. When an audience picks up on something like this, and understands it, there is a good laugh to be had. In cases of frustrated ignorance, there’s always an urge to quit. From the get-go, I assumed this poem was about God’s perspective. Whoever it is say they “wish [they] could hint about the dead young men and women” Does this mean they know what has happened to the dead young men and women? Or that they wish they knew. This “I” knows just about everything so I have to continue assuming I’m right about it being a greater being; perhaps nature? The Earth? The Sun?
    But alas, the “I” becomes human. How does one write poetry – with the intent of baffling the readers? I guess my main concern for reading poetry is the approach. I feel like unless given a meaning to the poem – as Adam hopefully will thorough the semester – it means only what you want it to mean. Religion is the same way. Why does the mood change when he describes each profession? I can come up with reasons as good as anyone, but only a few will hold ground – and Adam’s explanation definitely will. Not necessarily because he is right, but because, much like a debate, the most convincing or credible side usually has the last word. I have always felt a disdain for poetry because of its lack of solidity. And again, to talking like a God the narrator goes…

  11. While a fan of poetry, I have never found myself interested in the works of Walt Whitman. "Song of Myself" displays those things that were indeed important to Whitman, as we discussed on the first day of class. He is very much an American author, exemplifying the ideas that America stands for, such as that all men are created equally.

    An interesting parallel that I saw between Whitman and Butler was the idea of hyperempathy. Both presented the reader with the idea that pain could be absorbed and "felt" by a second party not directly experiencing that pain. Secondly, Whitman presents a very similar idea regarding religion that Butler presents in Parable of the Sower, that we ultimately have control over our lives.

    I find Whitman's writing wordy and often times unnecessary. While his descriptions of things are indeed beautiful, in my mind they merely serve as filler for greater points that he is trying to get across. The question I am left with after finishing "Song of Myself" is largely what the poem was intending to do. He covers such a variety of topics that I am unsure as to whether I should divide them into the individual passages and take those at face value, or if he had some larger intent with the poem as a whole. One poem would describe a lover, the next a bloody battle scene, another the activities of common townspeople. To clarify, I wonder whether the structure intends to have the reader connect the individual sections, or divide them up to create small individual poems.

  12. My question after reading Song of Myself is how does Whitman feel about religion and God? At different points in the text it seems to me that he has a lot of respect for the Earth, nature, and God, but at other points he seems to be more spiritual and have more reverence for man. There were also points where I thought he sort of described himself as being almost God-like and omnipotent. I got that impression especially in section 40. In section 43 he also describes a number of different religions, which gave me the impression that he was more spiritual than really religious, especially when he was talking about faith. I got the same impression in section 48 when he was discussing the importance of the soul.
    Overall, my general impression of the whole poem was that Whitman has a real appreciation for nature and animals. That was one of the only things I got out of the poem, unfortunately, because I don’t have a very good understanding of poetry. I liked the repetition, the descriptions of nature, and the references to different parts of America. Another thing I definitely noticed was how much Whitman loves America and the freedom our country represents. He makes lots of references to what I assume would be the frontier at the time the poem was written, and to the people who live there. These descriptions of nature and the frontier were my favorite part of the poem.

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  14. I felt I didn’t have much trouble actually reading and getting through Whitman’s Song of Myself but upon finishing, I felt I really didn’t understand what Whitman was trying to achieve with this poem. Ultimately, I guess since poetry has never been my strong point; I have a bit of a difficulty comprehending this poem as a whole.

    However, I do have a few favorite lines that I had to stop and think about. One of my favorites include the line:

    136 I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
    137 I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.

    I really like this line because I feel it is a very unselfish outlook on life as I feel Whitman is saying that survival on this earth is not only for the good of yourself but also for the good of the people around you who care about you (friends, family, etc.). This is something I have always kind of thought of in the back of my head and it was nice to see someone else who shared the same views from a whole different generation.

  15. I think the verses in section 48 speak to how Whitman views god. He says that nothing, including god, could be as wonderful as “myself.” At first, this seems a little egocentric, but what I believe he is trying to say is that people spend too much time being mystified by whoever their god is. He wants to focus on learning about his fellow man or nature, all of which he recognizes has traces of god in them, but I believe he would rather us focus on the actual “letters from God” rather than the god who sent the letters. I had never really come across this view on god and life before, that he exists and created all but that fact isn’t what’s actually important. I’m interested to find out if that’s how everyone else read this section, considering its poetry I could be way off on this one.

  16. I love the section on page 46 where Whitman begins talking about eternity. "The clock indicates eternity but what does eternity indicate? Eternity lies in bottomless reservoirs its buckets are rising forever and ever, They pour and they pour and they exhale away..." I think whitman is trying to make a statement about the vastness of eternity and the smallness that he feels in comparison to it. He goes on to talk about how the generations before his birth guided him and he will help to shape the generations after him. An especially important line I think comes on the next page, 48 where Whitman says "They are but parts...any thing is but a part." Previous to this line he was discussing galaxies and the everlasting life that is the universe. That there has and will be billions more summers, winters and seasons. All occurring without being affected by the miniscule dent that mankind makes. I think his main point in this section is to talk about how insignificant humans are in the scheme of nature. This was probably my favorite part of Song of Myself.