Posts Tagged ‘Song of Myself’

Whitman Making Books

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

As a visual artist, I have a fascination with typography and book making. I was interested to learn that Walt Whitman (a journeyman printer since his teenage years) was intimately involved in the actual design and making of Leaves of Grass. The topic came up today in class, during our discussion about his ‘catalog’ of Americans in Song of Myself that begins on line 257 and continues to line 325.  While we were sharing our opinions on the length and breadth of this section, I couldn’t help thinking about the tedious work involved in typesetting just one line of text— let alone an entire collection of poetry— and how Whitman must have felt a strong attachment to each and every line in this long, paratactical list (and to this long poem). Imagine the time it took to bring this book to life, in print.

I found this article at the Walt Whitman Archive website— a commentary entitled, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman, which discusses Whitman’s relationship to books as both a writer and printer. There are several photos—among them one I’ve included here, showing clips from two different printings of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, pointing out that there was a period punctuating the end of Song of Myself. You can barely see it in the top example, because it’s positioned too close to the “you” at the end of the sentence:


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I found another interesting tidbit in my typesetting treasure hunt. It’s not necessarily Whitman-related (I’m not even sure if it would have been used in the 19th century) but he might very well have used this printmaking reference in a poem:

In typesetting, the phrase widows and orphans is defined as “words or short lines at the beginning or end of a paragraph, which are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph”.

More Cow Bell!

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

This semester is my first in the Music History sequence as part of my Music Major here, and something that was focused on in our Grout was how citizens of the classical world believed that music and poetry were essentially the same thing. A piece of performance art was not generally complete without music, text, and dance. Recitals for solo instruments existed as well, but true entertainment to be appreciated was multifaceted and comprehensive in the arts.

So, when I first began reading with the care that one usually has when first starting a text, I paid a lot of attention to rhythm and musicality. I marked a few lines for their vowel lengths, and others for their stress/emphasis. But I also established that I would never finish this poem in any decent amount of time with that much attention, so I stopped (I will go back, though. The human brain functions on and in patterns, and I’m determined to figure out Walt’s.) and from there, certain lines stood out to me. I really want to focus on just one today, though, and it’s the one I spoke about in class.

This line still warms up my ears just reading it or replaying it in my head, I just love it so much. Line 77 (pg 10):

“Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.”

The repetition of the “l”s in the first five words, tapping against the back of your teeth? It reminds me of the first lines of Nabakov’s Lolita, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Yum, right?

Then, you’ve got your “the hum of”. Mph. It is as if the line is just telling you to take your time, really “lull” yourself into it – the hummm of. And did you notice that the “v” of “of” sets you right up for “valved” two words later? I’m not saying Whitman did all of this on purpose, but isn’t it nice when you’ve got a musician or a poet improvising (because isn’t that generally how anything that needs to be created is created in the first place?) and whatever they create just ends up perfectly pleasing (or not pleasing)?

The way he keeps this line right on the tip of your tongue, moving towards your lips every few words is just artful in my opinion. And the “v”s. Really? Is it weird how much I love this? It just feels so good in my mouth! It’s a warm line.

So… that was me “fan-girling” over a single line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.

Walt Whitman Bridge

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Is an actual place on I-76 in Delaware that connects New Jersey and Philadelphia.  Walt Whitman and his work has been so significant that people have wished to commemorate his honor with structures that we imagine to be as everlasting as his influence.  What made Whitman so significant is easy to see but sometimes hard to describe.

In class today we touched on a lot of aspects of Walt Whitman’s life and work.  We learned the details of his biography including his relationships and geography.  Kristina opened discussion on some major topics like mind/body relationships, epiphany, and sexuality.   Our classmates mentioned gender polarity and indulged Whitman’s homoeroticism that lead us to explore the roles of our bodies, the transcendence of our souls, and the manifestations of our desires.  I found a few quotes that we missed in class that I think have a lot to say about these topics:

“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.”
“I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is…”


One subject we didn’t cover in as much detail was the “witness”.  I find myself thinking about what it means to be a witness—to the world, to my community, to my loved ones, and to myself.  A witness holds account of things going on around them.  Based on our discussion about Whitman’s life and his experience witnessing the pain of soldiers—an experience that left him somewhat emasculated and significantly more observant— I am left to wonder how witness plays a role in our reading of the work.  Are we the intended audience, are we witnessing Whitman, or is he witnessing himself, or expecting us to witness him witnessing himself in order to inspire us to call attention to ourselves?  In my opinion it’s just his ploy to get us thinking about it

Song of Myself  is an obvious celebration of human life. Whitman’s poem provides an epic commentary on humanity as a whole and as an individual at the same time.  This is the unity we talked about.  He explores beauty and nature through the eyes of a conscious witness. It is evident in the evolution of Whitman’s writing that his experiences influenced his art.   Eventually we are left to wonder who is to bear witness to whom or to what confused by speaker and point of view.  In my opinion it’s just his ploy to get us thinking about the nature of wholeness and being which is, to me, a combination of sexuality, appreciation for nature, and giving witness or providing record.