I am interested in Whitman as a poet-of-sound or voice, which is to say a poet who is meant to be read aloud, whose words are a species of music (melopoeia) rather than say a riddle of meaning (logopoeia) or a visually descriptive poem (phanopeia), that creates imaginative scenes in the mind. There certainly are poets who, as Ezra Pound dubbed them, write a poetry that is a “as the dance of the intellect among words” and there are poets like e.e. cummings for whom the visual arrangement on the page is essential to the poem’s meaning. But, I was freshly struck by the ways in which Whitman plays with sound, not necessarily in formal terms, like perfect rhyme (he rarely writes end rhymes) but in terms of meaning. For instance, in Song #26 he settles back into a position of observation, explaining that now, “Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.” The poet becomes a cipher with an impossible task to “accrue” one of the most ephemeral of phenomena: sound. Whitman writes:
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
The hearing is like an act of seeing. Bird song combines with the sound of wheat “growing.” This combines with the “gossip of flames” which morphs into the “clack of sticks cooking my meals.” The choice of the descriptor “gossip” frames the sound of the flames as they singe wood, making it snap and hiss, as neighbors hissing and snapping about one another. Lines are not end-stopped by rhyme nor are they end-stopped with periods. Instead, these comma separated clauses combine, creating an expansive panoply of sound and meaning. The poem seems to reflect on its very mechanisms as he writes (almost it would seem in response to the lines I’ve just mentioned): “I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,”.
(Since this post is about 350 words long, I’ll return to this and add an additional 150 words)
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Poetry Foundation. n.d. Web. September 9, 2016 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45477
(I listed the URL but that’s actually optional as per the new MLA format guidelines)