Saturday, September 19, 2009

Walt Whitman: The Poet Electric

The Electric Whitman
On March 5, 1842, a twenty-two-year-old reporter for the New York Aurora attended Ralph Waldo Emerson's well-traveled lecture, "The Poet." The journalist, Walt Whitman, praised the speech, calling it "one of the richest and most beautiful compositions ... we have heard anywhere, at any time." When Emerson expanded and published the lecture as an essay in 1844, Whitman pored over and digested the new version.

Emerson's essay concluded with a stormy exhortation, a sermon, it seems, that Whitman took to heart:

"Doubt not, O poet, but persist: Say 'It is in me, and shall out.' Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last, rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a [poet] is the conductor of the whole river of electricity."

Is it any wonder, then, that electrical imagery crackles and hums throughout even the earliest versions of Leaves of Grass? "Mine is no callous shell," sings Whitman in "Song of Myself," "I have instant conductors all over me" (614-15). And this trope of the electrified poet becomes increasingly explicit as the book evolves, so that in the fourth edition (1867), for example, "The Poem of the Body" gets rewired with a new first line: "I sing the body electric." By 1881, the year of the book's last significant revisions, Whitman has transformed the romanticized notion of poet into a full-blown emblem of the modern. So suggests these lines from "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean Life":

I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward, Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems Was seiz'd by the spirit ...

For twenty years the poem read "eternal self" at this juncture. The substitution of "electric" for "eternal," while a small emendation, suggests that Whitman in later years was seeking to make his verse more energetic, as well as up-to-date. "Eternal" does not adequately express the enthusiasm--the ecstasy--of the inspired writer.

We can recognize in these examples an incarnation of Emerson's ideal. It is as if Whitman received an oracle in the lecture hall that day in 1842, as if he took the scroll from the hands of the sage and proclaimed, "Today this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing." Clearly, Whitman was prone to viewing himself as just such a messianic figure. He called Leaves of Grass his "Bible," and there are several instances where he appropriated the idiom and authoritative diction of the Gospels. Whitman, of course, was notorious for outbursts of egotism and self-aggrandizement, but in his case, there was substance to his claim. If not a prophet, he did realize the expectations of an American literati who clamored for a charismatic poet they could call their own. Whitman, without a doubt, was obsessed with his poetic destiny. Biographer Justin Kaplan observes that while reading Alexander Smith's A Life Drama, Whitman exclaimed over "one electric passage" where "the announcement is made of a great forthcoming Poet": "The passage was addressed to a character named 'Walter,' who says that these words 'set me on fire.'" Time and again, Whitman chooses the word "electric" to articulate his poetic excitement.

While the adjective "electric" is relatively common in expressions of enthusiasm, the significance of its frequent use in Leaves of Grass is complicated. The title of the book suggests that a field of organic material grows between the covers; how does electricity figure in such a conceit? How does electrical language invigorate these Leaves? And in what ways is Whitman a transformer of Emerson's electrified speech?

Charles Olson once defined the creative process as "energy transferred from where the poet got it ... by way of the poem itself ... all the way over to the reader ... an energy discharge" (1966). He must have been reading his Whitman. In "Song of Myself" the poet insists, "I have instant conductors all over me..../ They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me/ . .. My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from me" (615-16, 612). Emerson's poet-conductor receives a power surge from the imagination and transmits that sensation to the audience; he is first and foremost a dreamer. But for Whitman, the impulse seems to originate directly from the world at large. The poet doesn't invent as much as take in and reroute. With Emerson, the emphasis is on genius; with Whitman, conductivity and exchange. "O the joy of my soul," he exclaims, "receiving identity through materials and loving them .../My soul vibrated back to me from them, from sight, hearing, touch, reason, articulation, comparison, memory, and the like" ("A Song of Joys" 98-99). As Whitman presents it, the mind tunes into the universe and hears reverberation, touches the outside world and makes a connection, discerns a likeness in the Other and identifies. The passage also helps explain Whitman's penchant for catalogs and long lists. The inventory soldered onto the page functions like a motherboard of switches and circuits and microchips: You touch the book, the book touches back.

Wherever the poet finds points of contact, there is a mania for intimacy. He is, above all, a communicator. This is why the telegraph holds special significance in Leaves of Grass. With the construction of the first transatlantic cable begun in 1857, geographical distances that once separated nations vanished; messages could be sent and received almost instantaneously. As Kaplan draws out from both the journals and the poetry, Whitman expressed a fascination with the metaphorical possibilities of such an invention: The new technology represents the purpose of his verses--to connect the world. He writes, "See, in my poems .../... the electric telegraph stretching across the continent,/See, through Atlantica's depth pulses American Europe reaching, pulses of Europe duly returned" ("Starting from Paumanok" 258-60). He envisions here and elsewhere a Western Union, where democracy--energized--is sent back and forth across the ocean, say, from New York to Paris, the birthplace of American liberty. According to Whitman, the democratic notion of universal brotherhood inspires uninhibited exchange. There is intellectual kinship everywhere; and thanks to Yankee engineering, whether in science or poems, discourse travels farther and faster. While the "word Democratic, the word En-Masse" seeks a global communion of the like-minded, foreign ideas are not to be excluded but welcomed into the conversation as well. "Myths Asiatic, the primitive fables" course through the "eloquent gentle wires" of these poems, such that East and West, Old World and New, are "fused together" ("Passage to India" 7-17).

The "modern wonder" of the telegraph becomes a primary instrument in the unification of the American continent. So joined, the body politic--the United States--buzzes not only with optimism and progress but also with fellowship and camaraderie. "I sing the body electric," rhapsodizes Whitman, because Americans comprise a common citizenry, a society that prospers only when relationships are mutual and symbiotic. The sexual attraction that electrifies human interactions obviously complicates that network. But love, as Whitman construes it, operates on many frequencies simultaneously--erotic, psychic, political. He promises in "For You O Democracy," "I will make divine magnetic lands,/With the love of comrades,/... I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks,/... By the manly love of comrades" (3-8). This masculine, homosocial unity proceeds from a "democratic" urge. Yet the political bond never overrides the sexual in these poems; he praises the physical body, in and of itself, and does not depend on allegory to convey his meaning. One need only look at the image of the "swimmers" to perceive Whitman's sometimes blunt, sometimes coy eroticism. As Whitman warns in "O You Whom I Often and Silently Come," "Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me" (3).

Ultimately, a libertine Whitman rebels against New Testament ethics. The lyrical self in "I Sing the Body Electric" jumps between erotic melody and spiritual polemic. "The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,/They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,/And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul" (2-4). The lovers in this passage are decadent and entangled. Elsewhere in the poem, they seem to lack vigor, and as a result, they "conceal" their bodies (5). As "Children of Adam," they have learned that they are naked and ashamed. To "discorrupt them," the singer bombards them with a positive charge. He exalts the male and female in their idealized forms--"clean, strong, firm-fibred"--and declares them "sacred." Rather than condemn his own body, he sees its perfection and "sings" it, pronouncing on it a blessing. In the same way that he loves himself, Whitman loves his multitudes; his eros makes them whole. Arguably, the gesture made in "Body Electric" is a perverse imitation of Christ that takes a swipe at the puritanical.

But more than polemic, Whitman's exhibitionism lays claim to real psychological and political power. Disrobing in public, whether literally or in print, defies nineteenth-century codes of conduct. "Body Electric" suggests that this emancipation is available not only for the poet but for anyone who is similarly exhibited. Even slaves on the auction block are not degraded (95-128). This is because the magnetism of their exposed musculature has the power to captivate the very ones who seek their enslavement. Whitman, as anatomist, peels away not only clothes but skin tone. The revelation of "brain," "tendon," "nerve," and "blood" renders social distinctions of "red, black, or white" superficial. And he suggests, not so subtly, a common ancestor for all races: "(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back/through the centuries?)" (117-18).

In "Body Electric," the poet--once referred to by R. W. B. Lewis as the New American Adam--sanctions physical pleasure, and thereby sanctifies those he loves, "whoever [they] are." His is a prolific and plural intercourse, oblivious to the restrictions imposed by marriage or monogamy. The erratic, spontaneous self goes where attracted. The electric pulse of the soul--sexual, social, poetic--leaps out of bounds to its receptor. This ecstatic Whitman very much resembles Emerson's conductor; he is invested with godlike privileges, for his is "a power transcending all limit and privacy." Shameless, his electrons and ejaculations (in every sense) go forth and seek out a sympathetic audience.

What is this self that enters into relationship with everything that it contacts? The vaunted identity that the poet projects onto the page sometimes is described as a physical Whitman, sometimes as the spirit of Whitman, sometimes as the book of Whitman's verse. In Leaves of Grass, the relationship between body, soul, and text can be frustratingly ambiguous. At most, we can say that these manifestations--constituting the "Form complete"--share an affinity with one another but not a precise equivalence. Generally speaking, wherever you find one in a Whitman poem, the others lurk in the vicinity. The body, however, is most conspicuous. Imagine the material self and, by analogy, you see the soul. Contemplate the body long enough and you understand the earthiness of the poems. The very title of "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand" stipulates this overarching desire for the poet to be perceived wholly in unity with his Leaves. Altogether, the physical, the spiritual, and the textual exist in a trinitarian unity.

With the mention of the theologically loaded word "trinitarian," it is important to reiterate that, for Whitman, divinity is rooted in the physical universe. The divine power to make words is produced by an electric generator deep in the machinery of the kosmos. In one of the later poems, "From Far Dakota's CaƱons," we learn: "(The sun there at the centre though conceal'd,/Electric life forever at the centre,)/Breaks forth a lightning flash" (16-18). Electricity becomes Whitman's metaphor of choice because it delivers a living current--magnetic, powerful, unpredictable, revelatory. It is eternal; it cannot be destroyed. It is invisible; it can only be seen in flashes. "The electric all" suffuses both the natural and spiritual realms ("As They Draw to a Close" 8). The poet encounters it everywhere, within and without. His "electric self" is plugged into countless energy fields; he transmits worldwide.

Screaming electric, the atmosphere using, At random glancing, each as I notice absorbing, Swiftly on, but a little while alighting, Curious envelop'd messages delivering, Sparkles hot, seed ethereal down in the dirt dropping, Myself unknowing, my commission obeying, to question it never daring. ("So Long!" 36-41)

Whitman believes that in broadcasting the seed that "sparkles hot," he spawns a new generation. His message, he insists, is good news to those who worry about the spiritual state of modern man. In "Years of the Modern" he declares: "Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a god,/Lo, how he urges and urges, leaving the masses no rest!" (15-16). Whitman, with characteristic confidence, predicts that America will fulfill its destiny, though he declines to describe exactly how:

Ready, collected here, a freer, vast, electric world, to be constructed here, (The true New World, the world of orbic science, morals, literatures to come,) Thou wonder world yet undefined, unform'd, neither do I define thee ................................................................... I but thee name, thee prophesy, as now, I merely thee ejaculate! ("Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" 67-77)

In "Romantic Electricity, or the Materiality of Aesthetics," Paul Gilmore argues that "electricity functioned as a powerful metaphor of emotional connection, bodily excitement, and aesthetic power" for writers in the Romantic tradition on both sides of the Atlantic (2004). The conception of electricity as both material and spiritual force, popularized in the scientific and pseudoscientific literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, made it a dominant trope for writers describing a wide range of human activity but especially artistic creation. Gilmore explains: "Aesthetic experience is the sensual and conscious suspension and ecstatic transcendence of the interested self through an encounter with a stimulus.... As the product of material sensations registered on the individual body that give rise to a sense of the limitations and fluid boundaries of the self, the aesthetic moment is inherently paradoxical, blurring distinctions between self and community, sensual and ideal." Gilmore positions Whitman squarely within this tradition. By resorting to the metaphor of electricity, and more particularly, the telegraph, Whitman's "aesthetic dream becomes rooted in the material and social forces that might actually allow cross-cultural interaction and foster a sense of the self's connection to others."

Gilmore's analysis of electricity in Leaves of Grass is significant because it portrays Whitman as a product of his times, able to elicit from this trope positive correspondences to "emotional connection, bodily excitement, and aesthetic power." What the argument neglects, however, is Whitman's peculiar appreciation of electricity as a potentially destructive force. Whitman understands, in a way unrealized by his contemporaries, the danger of the conduit. He recognizes that the poet who opens himself up to the stimulating and the spectacular is at times vulnerable to violent and pernicious energies as well. Overwhelmed by negative surges, the singer in "Song of Myself" comes close to despair. "You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat,/Unclench your floodgates, you are too much for me" (640-41). This is not the voice of the optimist or the transcendentalist. Here, the poet, inundated, admits he has blown a fuse.

Whitman's poetics have brought him to such a crisis. He has committed himself to the wide range of human experience and, in so doing, puts himself at risk. Whatever electricity is in the air, he feels compelled to report. By inclination, he is attracted to energies that unite men and women: the forces of democracy, sex, poetry, technology, and the like. War--especially civil war--by its very nature, sets brother against brother. Such hostility is antithetical to his harmonizing instincts, even repulsive. But if Whitman really is the poet of Emerson's prophecy, he will demonstrate that he can conduct "the whole river of electricity," including the rage.

Whitman proves to be disquietingly well suited for martial poetry. The extent to which he surrenders to "war ecstasy" can even at times seem demonic. Consider this invocation in "Spirit Whose Work is Done": "Spirit of ... many a savage scene--electric spirit/ ... you beat and beat the drum/ ... Leave me your pulses of rage/ ... Fill me with currents convulsive/ ... Let them scorch and blister out of my chants." Electricity, primarily in the form of chain lightning, comes to symbolize the firestorm that has roused the nation. The "shock electric" at first produces only an "ominous hum" as the warriors prepare for conflict ("First O Songs For a Prelude" 17-18). But soon the country is swallowed in maelstrom. Writes Whitman, "I have witness'd my cities electric" in "warlike America" ("Rise O Days From Your Fathomless Deep" 45-46). A "barbaric yawp" is heard above the rooftops, and it sounds like the scream of the war hawk.

Yet surprisingly, the poet excited by hostilities also embraces the humanitarian impulse. "The Wound-Dresser," in Whitman's most famous expression of empathy, recalls his intimate experience with casualties dragged from the battlefield. This Whitman nurses the fallen and decries the injuries inflicted upon them. When the speaker describes "the foot with the bullet wound" as "gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive," we are right to recognize his outrage (53-54). On the other hand, we cannot ignore the ebullient flag-waving that encapsulates "Song of the Banner at Daybreak": "Demons and death then I sing,/Put in all, aye all will I, sword-shaped pennant for war,/And a pleasure new and ecstatic" (105-107). It is the "pleasure" Whitman derives from war energy that is particularly troubling, and one wonders how, within this one man, this one book, militancy can coexist with sensitivity. Indeed, what becomes apparent throughout Leaves of Grass is that these war poems convey a perpetually alternating current, both bloodlust and shell-shocked soldier. War is simultaneously the occasion for battle hymn and dirge, drumbeat and tender elegy.

When a writer like Whitman offers lamentation, it seems a humane response to bloodshed. War anthems are more troublesome. What is it about combat that resonates with this poet? Certainly, Whitman enjoys the range of his emotions, including the wild and the furious. His 1855 preface to Leaves prepares the reader accordingly:

What do you think is the grandeur of storms and dismemberments and the deadliest battles and wrecks and the wildest fury of the elements and the power of the sea and the motion of nature and the throes of human desires and dignity and hate and love? It is that something in the soul which says, Rage on, Whirl on, I tread master here and everywhere, Master of the spasms of the sky and the shatter of the sea, Master of nature and passion and death, And of all terror and pain.

On the battlefield, "primal energies" are "satisfied" and the "pent fire" is "glutted" ("Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps"). In these moments, he is indeed a poet possessed by Mars. Elsewhere in Leaves of Grass, Whitman adopts a similarly reckless posture. "I know I am restless and make others so,/I know my words are weapons full of danger, full of death,/For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them" ("As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado" 3-5). It's hard not to read into these lines a bellicose Whitman, a man itching for a fight.

But the martial bluster recurrent in Leaves of Grass is more than saber rattling fueled by testosterone. Whitman sincerely believed in this war and the justice of northern aggression. For him, the "storm of vengeful democracy" explodes with "true thunder and lightning" From the outset, from the first shots fired at Fort Sumter, he was galvanized into action, willing to take up his verse to prosecute what he considered an essential conflict. Secession threatened the very existence of the Union, and, as a result, Yankee patriots must fire their rifles to hold the country together. This war, though devastating, was justified. These sentiments occasionally surface in Specimen Days (1892; 1963), the collection of Whitman's prose writings. Whitman writes, for example:

But what can I say of that prompt and splendid wrestling with secession slavery, the arch-enemy personified, the instant he unmistakably show'd his face? The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston, proves for certain something which had been previously in great doubt, and at once substantially settled the question of disunion.... Down in the abysms of New World humanity there had form'd and harden'd a primal hard-pan of national Union will, determin'd and in the majority.

As Whitman agitates for reprisal, the river of electricity necessarily turns sanguine. War is afoot, and he seems remarkably cavalier about it. Though a reflective Whitman will soberly assess the suffering and humiliation of both Federal and Rebel infantries, nevertheless he is prone to thrill at "the electric tramping of so many horses on the hard road, and the gallant bearing, fine seat, and bright appearance of a thousand ... handsome young American men" when they parade before him (Specimen Days). Whitman's enthusiasm is not confined to the pomp and circumstance of the military show. The correspondent in him is just as eager to report from the battlefield. This is, in part, because he appropriates the classical sensibility about warfare, that the combat zone is a proving ground, where soldiers perform heroically or cowardly and where writers make a name for themselves.

We observe such a perspective early in Leaves of Grass. In the "Inscriptions," the first section of the book, a "Phantom" appears to the poet and asks him what he will sing. "Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?/And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,/The making of perfect soldiers" ("As I Ponder'd in Silence" 9-11). The "theme of War;' then, activates Whitman's ambition and provides him with an immense and tragic subject. The cause is noble, the soldiers brave, and the outcome victorious. As Leaves of Grass develops and the structure solidifies, Whitman increasingly casts his collection as an American epic, chronicling the spirit, if not the events, of the conflict. "My book and the war," he says, "are one" ("To Thee Old Cause" 15).

The friction between the states electrifies Whitman's verse--and the continent--in a way far different from the telegraph. Negative energies divide families and threaten to blow the Union apart, but the net effect is at last positive. The body politic absorbs the pulse and survives. And the warmonger finds himself the mouthpiece of a reconciled nation, "one vast consensus, north, south, east, west" ("A Thought of Columbus" 22). Whitman's martial poetry markedly illustrates that both positive and negative currents run together in Leaves of Grass like the red and black wires in a circuit. The two are responsible for vivifying the pages, though readers--especially twenty-first-century readers--may have difficulty resolving the polarity. Critic Mark Feldman has shown, using Whitman's Memoranda, that Whitman himself was overwhelmed by the conflicting passions of the war years (2005). His challenge as a poet was to recreate on the page an atmosphere that was supercharged and true to both the anguish and the fury. Yet how could he channel that much emotion without himself becoming electrocuted? In one revealing passage from Specimen Days, Whitman uses the word "convulsiveness" to capture "the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times." "Convulsiveness" suggests that the country--and he as its poet--has sustained a near-fatal trauma. Feldman remarks that "even Whitman's own body was driven to convulsions, to seizures and temporary paralysis, in 1863, 1865, and 1873"; and throughout the postwar years he experienced "flashbacks."

All this is to say that the conductivity in Leaves of Grass requires an exceptional personal commitment. It also demands a versification that heretofore had been absent in American letters. To conduct the power of warfare, Whitman eschews the regularity and the grand tradition of the heroic stanza and opts instead for the electric line, the jagged edge of free verse. Hostilities necessitate "bards with songs ... as from lightning's forked stripes"--violent, irregular, and impulsive ("By Blue Ontario's Shores" 333). This innovation is really as ancient as poetry itself, before the line was domesticated by fixed meters, and harks all the way back to the dithyramb. It is a music marked by exuberance and exclamation. Whitman himself terms his lines "trains of a staggering line in many a strange procession" ("Now Precedent Songs, Farewell" 2).

By committing to free verse, Whitman escapes the anxiety of influence exerted by Emerson. He leaves behind the standardized prosody of his contemporaries in favor of the sudden jolt. This transition is reflected in a note he added to the 1876 preface of Leaves, which states:

Then, for enclosing clue of all, it is imperatively and ever to be borne in mind that "Leaves of Grass" entire is not to be construed as an intellectual or scholastic effort or poem mainly, but more as a radical utterance out of the Emotions and the Physique--an utterance adjusted to, perhaps born of, Democracy and the Modern--in its very nature regardless of the old conventions, and, under the great laws, following only its own impulses.

Emerson could describe the ideal poet, but he could not surrender to the ecstasy. "Of power," wrote Whitman of his mentor, "he seems to have a gentleman's admiration--but in his inmost heart the grandest attribute of God and Poets is always subordinate to the octaves, conceits, polite kinks, and verbs." This caricature of Emerson reflects the animosity that in later years surfaced between them. Whitman's criticism, however, points both ways. Whitman, who pretends to be spontaneous conductor, relies routinely upon prefab figures of speech to stylize his "utterance." His poems are rife with anaphora, epistrophe, isocolon, polysyndeton, symploce, and other well-established turns of phrase. True, the metrical forms popular among nineteenth-century versifiers are abandoned; nevertheless, the organic material in Leaves of Grass is highly cultivated and pruned. The result of his approach may be that his verses are closer to Nature, more impulsive, but still the art is selective and artificial--"scholastic" and "intellectual." This is not a fault. The "great sympathetic" expresses the energy of a discriminating brain as well as promiscuous body.

Whitman's conception of electricity, inspired by Emerson, anticipates the modern understanding of how the brain communicates with itself and others--electrical interchange--but what is the role of volition in modulating those impulses? Whitman's verse appears ecstatic, and surely it is deeply felt; but, given the thirty years of revisions, not even he can claim that his Leaves are mere automatic writing. The will, or some self-correcting neurological mechanism, was obsessively and extensively at work on his opus. This argues for a complexity that cannot be explained exclusively by the metaphor of passive conductor. And it also suggests that the most radical utterances, negative or positive, persist because Whitman has chosen not to alter or strike them. The poet who edits is ultimately responsible for his words. Perhaps this is why Whitman sublimates war ecstasy to the larger cause of democracy. Drumbeats serve the primitive man and the enlightened one. The editorial transformation of electrified speech does not, from Whitman's perspective, neutralize the intensity, but it does remind us that his project, sometimes touted as spontaneous, is also disciplined and principled. Each of his lightning strikes deviates according to design.

Credits: Klatt, L.S. "The Electric Whitman." The Southern Review. 44.2 (Spring 2008): p321.

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