I celebrate myself
And what I shall assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass.
If you put the thoughts expressed in these opening lines of “Song of Myself” into ordinary speech, they are rather flat and uninteresting:
I myself am what I am celebrating; and everything that I am, you are also, since you and I are both made out of the same materials I’m really taking it easy, lying around and communing with my soul, while I look at a blade of grass.
Whitman’s lines don’t rhyme and they have no regular meter. There must be other things about them that make them so interesting and suggestive and exciting to read. These things, of course, are the words and the ways Whitman puts them together. By looking closely at these words and uses, one may be able to get closer to the mystery of poetry, of Whitman’s in any case, to be inspired by “Song of Myself” and to write like it and to understand it. I ask my students to pick out words and phrases they wouldn’t be likely to hear in conversation or to read in an essay or newspaper article. What’s peculiar about the way Whitman is talking? My college students find most of the oddities in the lines; and, with a bit more help, I think younger students could also:
To sum up, one finds in Whitman’s lines a mixture of plain and fancy (including religious and scientific and colloquial) words, repetitions of words and sounds that tend to partly change the words into music, vagueness, seemingly “wrong” uses of words, odd combinations of words, jump in subject matter, and an odd present tense. These oddnesses and “mistakes” make his lines different from prose and are part of what makes them poetry.
Reading such strangely mixed language so full of leaps and other surprises is not like reading the newspaper. It gives a different kind of meaning and does it in a different way.
Seeing the peculiarities of Whitman’s language can help students to enjoy writing like Whitman as well as to understand “Song of Myself.” A good writing exercise for students is to ask them to write four or five lines using as many of Whitman’s oddities as they can; for example, to start with a phrase like “I celebrate” (or “I prophesy,” “I command,” “I entertain”) and to follow that with something as unlikely as myself (Wednesday morning, ice-cold drinks, my dog sleeping). Then maybe a line with a word repeated like assume (And what I endorse you shall endorse) and so on. They are likely to have a good time doing this—it’s silly-seeming but inspiring. It leads to something—for one thing, an enlarged sense of what can be done with language, if you try to strange things with it, especially in poems.
Of course, the sense of the opening lines, and of the rest of “Song of Myself,” is closely connected to all that seems odd in the words. For example, for Whitman it makes perfect sense to announce a formal celebration of himself. A person’s ordinary self is more wonderful than any special particular day or event. And the best way to celebrate the self is just to lie around and take it easy, to loaf and look at things. And a grass blade is exactly the kind of thing that’s worthy of being observed; it’s plain, it’s common, it’s alive, it’s eternally reborn, it’s fresh and green, it proves that there is no death. What better thing to look at? No monument can compare to it. And if loafing is the right way to behave, you get a better sense of it from saying it slowly, from repeating—“I loafe” and “I lean and loafe at my ease.” Atom is a fine word to use because scientific and literary and plain words are all equal and all parts of the divine oneness and variety that Whitman finds in everything; words, people, animals, places. There are no privileged characters in Whitman and no privileged words. And so “as good belongs to you,” folksy though it is, is just fine for a philosophical statement. What’s easiest and most natural is what’s truest; profundity’s in plain talk and not in fancy academic or poetical speech. As for the present tense, it is perfect for saying “This is always going on, it’s always true, it’s always wonderful, it’s always right here and how.”
Finally, what Whitman has to say about oneness of all things is quite mysterious. It can’t be logically proven, can’t be rationally shown. But rhymes, repetitions, and even vagueness can help us to feel it. There is an exciting dreamy convincingness in “what I assume you shall assume” that would be lacking, for example, in a phrase such as “we’re just alike.” Once you see, and help others to see, the connections between the (not really separate) language and meaning of “Song of Myself” reading this long, complicated-seeming poem should be easier, and, as Whitman might say, luckier.
From The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman, Ron Padgett, editor. Copyright © 1991 by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Used by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 520 8th Avenue, Suite 2020, New York NY 10018. www.twc.org.