Whitman’s “Song of Myself” creates an imaginary, a space, perhaps a liminal space, of being. A space to examine and interrogate the fragments of ‘Self’—not sure if the ‘s’ should be capitalized—that come from within and which are projected onto our beings from the outside. What creates this space are the rhythms of everyday life that he evokes:
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers….loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration…the beating of my heart
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn
The structure of the free verse lines—the ellipses and the sense that the text is breathing in and out—evokes a sense of wonder at the natural world and our own natural processes, such as breathing. In many ways the divisions between body and environment and between physicality and interiority are blurred, I think, in Whitman’s ambiguous, but sensual verses. Instead of a fence or border around the body, his words make me think of one’s spirits transcending that border and perhaps merging with the spirit of nature and animals. But Whitman does not sound like a pretentious hipster hippy, rather there seems to be a genuine involvement in the fragmented, fluid and, maybe, fragile nature of Self.
He is everything and everything at the same time that he is not everything and everything is not him. The contradictions which create a thread throughout the sections of his poems may be a metaphor for the conflicted nature of Self.
We live in a culture where we are advertised the myth of the ‘whole’ Self. That if we travel we can “find” our Self and then document that process into photos that are edited on Instagram, posted on Facebook and blogged on Tumblr. Then, after the first commodification of Self, we can further parcel up our whole Self into a minted memoir and become a best-selling author. But identity construction and the idea of Self are messy and complicated. If the idea of a united Self is a myth, should we still strive for it? Is it possible? What does it say about the cultural moment we are a part of if value is placed on obtaining a “whole” Self?
‘Self’ is a word that continues to lurk beneath the surface of our class discussions. In Poe’s work, we envisioned and discussed an image of the self as a house with many rooms. In Whitman’s work it seems to be something much more fluid, much more susceptible to other forces.
What constitutes as a fragment of Self? Some of the lines of Whitman’s poems reminded me of the “poetry” of the text of the posted bills which create and re-create a new “skin” of the urban interiority of New York City.
I was born and raised in Queens, New York City. What remains as a stubborn stamp on my memory is the amount of text which bombarded my senses on my sojourn into Lower Manhattan every morning when I was still in high school via the subway. Poetry in Motion ads, the ads for for-profit colleges, ads to learn and teach English, graffiti tags etched on to the windows, spray painted graffiti on the platforms outside, the occasional arty and hipster-like stickers, the pervasive and Big Brother-esque slogan of the subway: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING manifesting itself in all corners of the train, on ads plastered against the tiled walls of the stations, even on the steps leading outside for those commuters who keep their eyes trained on the grounds. Who are these ads for? They are made with a specific audience in mind, multiple replications of a Self that the ad is trying to get to.
If we think of Self as a sort of repertoire where one adds and takes away fragments of ideas, emotions, likes, dislikes, ideologies, beliefs, etc. then what we have is not a whole, organic thing that functions like a machine. Instead it seems to be a combination of a mechanism which functions on logic and something more complex and messy, more attune to natural processes and emotions that we cannot explain.
Is text, or specifically poetry, the liason between these two perceptions of Self?
Jackson Heights, Queens, Winter 2013
Jackson Heights, Queens, Winter 2013
Jackson Heights, Queens, 2013
The Bowery, Manhattan, Winter 2013
Chinatown, Manhattan, Summer 2012