I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself back when I first read it for a class I was taking in the mid-90’s. I’m currently reading Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems and it’s 17th. After each poem (Song of Myself, at 1,346 lines and 52 sections, is excerpted) Paglia offers clear and engaging insight into the poems meaning all but neutered of her patented Italian grade of high octane, exuberantly combative prose. There are no gems like “Women’s latent vampirism is not a social aberration but a development of her maternal function, for which nature has equipped her with tiresome thoroughness” or “In film, popular music, and commercials, we contemplate all the daemonic myths and sexual stereotypes of paganism that reform movements from Christianity to feminism have never been able to eradicate” as found in the archly playful introduction of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In fact, there’s a refreshing pedagogic simplicity to her brief essays- they’re primers or refreshers (most of the 43 poems found here include numerous heavy hitters from the Western canon and, as such, have been anthologized out the wazoo) , introducing or reminding us of the poems merits. About Leaves of Grass she asserts that one of its central themes is “not war or moral struggle but expansion of consciousness. ‘I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass': like Wordsworth rejoicing in a field of wild daffodils, Whitman finds meaning in the random and commonplace.” And it’s in the poems many odes to the commonplace and its potential for consciousness raising that he gives us gems like this:
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stop for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good
You should have been with us that day around the chowder-kettle.
or this physiological question,
Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
or this orgasmic couplet
Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.
The key words being “upward” and “juice.”
Photo taken from Walt Whitman Archive