Many aspects of Whitman’s poetic form struck nineteenth-century readers as radical, but few provoked more of an outrage than what quickly came to be called his “catalogues.” We saw catalogues earlier in “Song of Myself” (indeed, as early as Section 2), but nothing prepares the reader for the seemingly endless catalogue of Section 15, the second-longest section in the poem. Here Whitman offers nearly seventy-five lines of images of people engaging in various activities. One early reviewer of the first edition of Leaves of Grass claimed that Whitman “should have been bred to the business of an auctioneer” because he was “perpetually haunted by the delusion that he has a catalogue to make.” This reviewer went on to compare long sections of Whitman’s poetry to an actual auctioneer’s catalogue. Soon, everyone was talking about Whitman’s catalogue-technique, and Whitman himself even adopted the term, noting late in his life that “some cuss my long catalogues, some think them holy.” He occasionally expressed frustration with readers who “gagged” at his catalogues: “Oh God! how tired I get of hearing that said about the ‘catalogues’!” He believed reviewers simply could not get past the catalogues: “it is that catalogue business that wrecks them all—that hauls them up short, that determines their opposition: they shudder at it.” Even Whitman’s admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented that Whitman’s “catalogue-style of poetry is easy and leads nowhere.”
When we read the shifting, random series of images in Section 15, we have a choice: we can skim quickly, as if we were on a speeding train, quickly passing by an ever-changing sequence of scenes; or we can read slowly and deliberately, as the twentieth-century poet William Carlos Williams suggested we should, pausing to savor every moment as its own potential poem. Perhaps we also hear a cacophonous music, “America singing” (as Whitman called it in another poem), with the contralto singing, the foreplane whistling, the “musical rain,” the conductor beating time, the drove singing, the clock ticking, and “the jingling of loose change.” Whatever we hear and see, and however we absorb this massive series of activities, we are particularly struck by one scene that extends over three lines and slows the catalogue down: that is the scene of the prostitute who is laughed at by the crowd as “the men jeer and wink to each other.” At this point, the poet pauses and puts a line in parentheses, as if stalling the rush of images to express a moment of disgust at the crowd’s disdain for the unfortunate woman: “(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you).” It is as if Whitman, in this catalogue of American life, is absorbing everything, accepting the nation’s wild diversity, pausing to reject just one thing: discrimination itself. The single thing that gets excluded from the multitudinous acts out of which the poet will “weave the song of myself” is any act of rejection. Life moves into the poet, and the poet moves outward into the tumultuous life around him, and all that stands in the way of democracy are small and nagging acts of discrimination.
The final three lines of this section work to pull the chaos of this vast catalog of sensory impressions into a kind of unity, and that unity is the self that has perceived them. Any single “I” has one vantage point, one set of eyes and ears that is continually absorbing the welter of sense impressions around the “I.” From that vantage point, it feels as if the world is “tending inward to me,” inclining, moving, stretching in toward the self’s eyes and ears and nose and tongue. At the same time, the “I” feels something in the self that is extending out toward the world, toward that endless stream of sights and sounds and smells. “I tend outward to them”: our senses reach out to the things of the world, always; our eyes are hungry to see, and our ears are hungry to hear. But so many things pass in front of our eyes and ears that we miss or ignore or are oblivious to, so we need also to “attend” to them, to take care to register and record them (as Whitman has done in this section with such loving care). So it is always what Whitman calls an “influx” and an “efflux,” the world incessantly whirling toward our senses, and our senses reaching out to absorb that world. And that, more or less, is what we are: we are the things we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled: “such as it is to be of these more or less I am.” No idea we have, no word we use, no love we feel, did not originate “out there.” They all entered in through our open senses, our senses which extended out to embrace them and then tended to them as we absorbed them: and out of all those endless stimuli, we each weave the unique song of our self.
A poet said that at bedtime when her daughter was young she liked to read to her from Homer’s catalogue of ships, in the second book of The Iliad. I felt a pang of sorrow for the child, thinking she must have been bored by the names and virtues of all the kings and warriors, the places they set sail from, their noble deeds—and then her mother recited lines from the poem, which even in translation can stir the hard-hearted. What a gift to receive at any age: a hymn to the abundance of the world—the multiplicity that Whitman celebrates in his first long catalogue.
The trick is to read slowly, to hear the music sounding in everyone and everything. The first line, the shortest in the catalogue, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” thus tunes our ears to the key of life. We belong to a choir, whether we know it or not, and we must listen closely to all the others, in order to find our place in the score, as the carpenter shaving a plank of wood hears in the smoothing movement of his fore plane the whistle of “its wild ascending lisp,” one voice calling out to another, weaving “the song of myself,” which belongs to everyone.
William Blake invites us “To see a world in a grain of sand,” and Whitman follows that advice to the letter, discovering infinity on what- and whomever his gaze alights—people from all walks of life, the highborn and the low, the passing seasons, the white sails of a regatta. There are no passers-by in Whitman’s field of vision, no missing persons: everyone is accounted for.
Whitman’s “catalogue” of people and activities is very much a product of mid-nineteenth-century America. How would the catalogue be different for your time and your culture? What would be the most characteristic and representative activities of the common people that best define your nation today?