Wednesday, February 06, 2019


Walt Whitman often is characterized as an apotheosis of the American cult of individualism with Song of Myself presented as exhibit A – Stephen Mitchell, for example, writes
Certainly the poem embodies an outrageous egotism, an “I” so shamelessly naked that even a bodhisattva can admire it[i],
but I hear something different. It may be because I have been teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons at the same time that I have been rereading Song, in Mitchell’s faux version of the 1855 first publication in Leaves of Grass that presented the text as a single unbroken long poem, in a truer version of the first edition[ii],  and in the 1891 “deathbed” edition that replicates the 1881 final variant, broken now into a suggestive 52 sections and using a title that did not settle on the text until 1876. Song was published in six different compositional stages during Whitman’s life, with Mitchell’s 1993 edition representing what he himself characterizes as a “conflated version”.
Preparing my notes on Stein’s prose poems, I’m reminded that while Whitman was dying in Camden, an event reported on by the US press on a daily basis, the 17-year-old Stein[iii] was in Baltimore preparing to attend Radcliffe and certainly was aware of America’s most famous and thoroughly out gay poet. Matt Miller has written of Whitman’s influence, for example, on The Making of Americans[iv], a title that fairly screams it out and whose scope recalls the ambition of Song if not the whole of Leaves of Grass. 43 years ago, G. Thomas Couser observed that:
two of our most eccentric writers and autobiographers – Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein – seem to share many intriguing similarities.[v]
True that. But where Couser locates these similarities in time and identity, what I hear instead is a tic in number, very nearly a drumbeat of the plural.

In the original 1855 edition, it jumps right out in the sixth line:
Houses and roof perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes
By the deathbed version,  two additional stanzas had been inserted into  the poem, pushing this line into the second section while converting Whitman’s four-period ellipsis into a comma, and trading in roof for the rhyme of rooms, a revision that spells out the primacy of sound in this text:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes
Rooms also has the advantage of being plural. The number of multiples in just the first few pages of the poem are stunning:
·         Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers
·         green leaves and dry leaves
·         darkcolored sea-rocks
·         belched words . . . . words
·         A few light kisses . . . . a few embraces . . . . a reaching around of arms
That is a page-and-a-half from the Mitchell. In addition to having composed a 50-page poem that favors exposition over narrative,  Whitman has written one in love with the plural:
Do I  contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain  multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh,
The conversion of roof to rooms is fortuitous, as Rooms is the title of the third and final section of Tender Buttons, the chapter of Stein’s book that is not a series of short, witty prose poems but very nearly an  essay (in Stein’s unique manner) on method. Buttons likewise concentrates “toward them that are nigh” as the world it conveys is very much that of bourgeois women of pre-First World War Paris, poem titles filled with hats, coats, umbrellas, and “a long dress,” with relatively few references to men beyond soldiers and that “white hunter.”  
Plurals categorize right where creative writing workshops argue that one should focus on the specific. In theory the singular is concrete, the plural general. It’s not an accident that we target in on the wheelbarrow, sensing a softer, almost fuzzy focus on the chickens. Yet as that shipwreck of the singular, George Oppen, reminds us at the start of Of Being Numerous,
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
That is very much what Stein is getting at with her invocation of familiars throughout Tender Buttons. And it is also what I hear throughout Song of Myself.
Whitman’s language in this sense is the antithesis of Pound’s, whose preference is for specifics drenched in historical & sometimes mythological connotation. Which also was what Williams heard in The Waste Land:
Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit[vi]
O stars of heaven,
O suns . . . . O grass of graves . . . . O perpetual transfers and promotions
Lists like this from the 49th canto of the deathbed Song lack Stein’s percussive alliteration, but, once stripped of the romantic “O,” the major difference is between Stein’s invocation of an interior world, household objects and food, over Whitman’s wider ranging, often more abstract or “transcendental” categories. Whitman’s plurals can be concrete, as with the twenty-eight young men observed splashing in the water in the 11th section or the
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests […]
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place
He’s closer here to Williams than Stein, employing the plural to set up a close-up. Looking at the following famous stanza, you will see that even the singular nouns other than “I,” categorize. They may be singulars but they’re plurals at heart.
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these and all I weave the song of myself.

First presented at the Five Up on Walt pre-birthday celebration at Kelly Writers House, Feb. 5, 2019

[i] “Editor’s Preface,” Song of Myself, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Shambhala, Boulder, 2018, p. xi.

[ii] Online in a Roslings Ditgital Publications PDF available from the Western Illinois University website:

[iii] The same age I was when William Carlos Williams died in 1963. It was Williams who opened the door of poetry to me through his poem “The Desert Music.”

[iv] Miller, “Making of Americans: Whitman and Stein’s Poetics of Inclusion,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, Autumn 2009

[v] Couser, “Of Time and Identity: Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein as Autobiographers,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 1976

[vi] Unsigned biographical essay on Williams on the Poetry Foundation website.