Irony certainly isn’t the first word that comes to mind when we think of the poems of Walt Whitman, whose vast, brilliant, and uneven body of work is more often characterized by terms like earnestness and sincerity, directness and plain speech. This most American of American poets invented, after all, free verse as we know it, and not just in terms of an open, conversational voice, presented in an arrangement on the page often determined by content rather than by strict measures.  His form mimics the process of thinking itself, and he allows the poem, in a markedly modern way, to grope toward meaning, using metaphor, image, analogy, and argument in ways quite unlike the dominant verse of his time. He gives a kind of breathing, seemingly spontaneous form to his questions, and thus his readers feel involved in a process of coming to knowledge, brought into an intimate relationship with at least a version of the speaker’s subjectivity. In this way he seems, along with his fellow experimentalist Emily Dickinson, to embody and predict a literary modernity that could only be perceived in retrospect.

But Whitman may not look, to those coming to Leaves of Grass some 160 years after its first publication, as truly radical as he was. We associate him with the quest for a national identity, a visionary hope for democracy, and his love for President Lincoln; those qualities led to the emblazoning of his name on bridges, schools, and even a New Jersey Turnpike service area. These accolades came along before our contemporary interest in the complexities of Whitman’s position as a man possessed of deep erotic feeling toward other men, a desire that, with a characteristic flurry of contradictory gestures, he displayed, obfuscated, and denied. The relative social permission of the 1850s gave way to a more restrictive sense of the normative during the thirty years of Whitman’s life that followed that first publication, and it’s worth noting that the publication of the final edition came just before the international scandal of Oscar Wilde’s trial for sodomy, which Whitman did not live to see. Thus the wonder is not that Whitman blew a smokescreen around his closet door, but that he said the daring, unrepressed, remarkably bold things he did.

But even in the arena of sexuality, we associate Whitman with sincerity, both in his appreciations of masculine beauty, and his declarations of pleasure in the men of Manhattan, “The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!” And, in another register, the vulnerable lyrics of the Calamus poems, in which he seeks not so much the free-flowing love of comrades as the solace of one man (“I am satisfied, / He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.”).

For these reasons, readers have sometimes overlooked the poet’s slyness, his cagey humor, and the oddly prescient self-awareness that floats through “Song of Myself” in particular. This sprawling and spiraling poem—what must those who first opened his book have made of it!—is spoken by one of the oddest (as well as most likable) speakers in any poem in English. He is “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” but he is not, as he tells us, “contained between my hat and boots.” The speaker has understood that there is no real boundary between us, and that, as he’d put it a year later in the poem that came to be called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not.” He is neither bound in his own skin nor in space and time, but is a participant in the world as a whole, indeed is that capital-S Self that incorporates all beings in all times and places. His readings of Emerson and newly translated texts from India, his interest in radical ontologies and in the self-improvement movements of his time (from high-fiber diets to nudism and phrenology), his studies in history and in philosophy had led him in this direction, and it seems inescapable to infer that experience had brought him to this viewpoint as well. How else to explain the transformation of a rather lackluster journalist, prose writer, and sometime poet into, over a mere few years, the most daring visionary of his day, one whose great poems still seem bathed in the light of a radiant apprehension? He writes in his preface to the first edition that the poet “glows a moment on the extremest verge” and I believe that is exactly what he did.

Whitman understood very well that he could not write a new American gospel that presented itself in a familiar way; if the effect was to be new, then so must the form. He believed wholeheartedly in the Transcendentalist principle that everything you needed to know was contained within yourself and within nature. That’s why Whitman can announce, in a moment of braggadocio that must have made his readers either wince or laugh out loud, or maybe both:

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a 
     spirt of my own seminal wet,

“The old cautious hucksters” here are the preachers of the word of Jehovah, Osiris, and Allah and a host of other gods.

But if everything you need to know is contained within you, then I truly can’t say that I know anything more than you do. The “self” that speaks to us in its glorious flights in Whitman’s signature poem must acknowledge simultaneously its claim on visionary truth, as well the fact that such truth is not exclusive, that it’s the property of everyone. Whitman brings this principle into the political arena; for him, it is one of the real foundations of democracy, this notion that we all partake of what Blake had called, just a few decades before, “the human form divine.” And so Whitman extends this invitation and promise to his readers:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess
     the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . .
     there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand
     . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . .
     nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take
     things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from

It’s a delicious irony that the poet tells us we won’t need to feed on “spectres in books”—pale verbal ghosts of experience—when we’re in fact drawing this wisdom from his book. Of course this isn’t lost on the poet, who seems to enjoy these moments of contradiction, which become demonstrations of self-awareness, flashes of insight in which the speaker seems to stand back from his poem and wink at us from the other side of the stage. It’s just what happens here:

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.

No matter how many times I read those lines, I feel at first quite taken in by their intimacy; Walt Whitman has just placed a large and friendly arm over my shoulder, and drawn me closer, only to remind me that our intimacy is an entirely open one: anyone at all can sit in the welcoming seat defined only by “you.” Something like this happens once again in this passage:

Listener up there! Here you . . . . what have you to
     confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
Talk honestly, for no one else hears you, and I stay only
     a minute longer.

Here the direct address to the individual reader is made more complex by the beautiful imperative of the second line. It’s impossible to know quite what’s meant by “while I snuff the sidle of evening,” but I know that I indeed want to look into those eyes as he does it, taking the night’s measure, opening himself, preparing to receive confidences from me just as he has given them. Or has he?

I find myself wondering why these passages fill me with such delight. Is it the pleasure of discovering that what is in many ways a spiritual text—a new gospel, as he thought of it—flashes with the life of humor? If someone handed you a “modern gospel,” would you be willing to read it if it weren’t at least witty? Or is it because irony is one of the ways we sense a speaker’s complicity with his audience—that we know, in other words, that he knows we’re here, and he’s signaling the human presence that stands behind his words? Is it a signal of some aspect of his theology, that nothing he says could be quite certain or seamlessly and permanently true or complete, since the best language can muster, even language this beautifully made, is an approximation? He likes to remind us that language can only go so far (“There is that in me….I do not know what it is….but I know it is in me….I do not know it….it is without name….it is a word unsaid”).

This sly, consummate strangeness—a poet asserting that words cannot contain his meaning but that it is nonetheless available to us, not the least through the fact of his own presence, which persists somehow, transmitted to us through or beneath the words—reaches its uncanny apex in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Earlier in the poem, Whitman has told us that as a passenger on that crowded boat he joins himself to all passengers to come:  “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence…” but it’s not until pages later that we understand that the poet means that line literally; he intends to speak to each of us, in particular, calling his audience into being, creating a future he will haunt:

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in
     my stores in advance,
I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you
     cannot see me?

That is very likely the most uncanny moment in American poetry. The speaker has been laying out a detailed vision of New York Harbor, a crowded realm of masts and sails and hurrying activity, and suddenly it’s as if he’s knocked over his own puppet stage, and there stands exposed the man who’s been pulling the strings and doing the voices. Now he addresses us directly, boldly, his attention turned from his own time to ours. It’s the penultimate line that unfailingly causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up a bit, or a little gooseflesh to ripple on my arm. This is no mere rhetorical performance, no matter of a mere artifact carrying the words of a dead man into the future; the man or spirit himself, whatever he is, this Walt Whitman is enjoying this. He’s loving it, as I and you and you are suddenly, in the middle of crossing the East River with him, startled awake by this sly, calm interrogative that seems meant for our ears alone. He’s as alive as he ever was, and maybe more so. 

This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright ©2015 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poetsbecome a member online.