Section 2, Song of Myself

Foreword

In this section, Whitman breaks out of enclosures, whether they be physical enclosures or mental ones. In one of his early notebooks, Whitman had drafted the line “Literature is full of perfumes,” a recognition that books and philosophies and religions all offer filtered versions of how to view the world. They are all “intoxicating”—alluring, to be sure, but also toxic. We are always tempted to live our lives according to the views of those who came before us, but Whitman urges us to escape such enclosures, open up the senses fully, and breathe the undistilled atmosphere itself. It is in this literal act of breathing that we gain our “inspiration,” the actual breathing in of the world. In this section, Whitman records the physicality of singing, of speaking a poem: a poem, he reminds us, does not derive from the mind or the soul but from the body. Our inspiration comes from our respiration, and the poem is “the smoke of my own breath,” the breathing of the atoms of the air back out into the world again as song. Poems are written, Whitman indicates here, with the lungs and the heart and the hands and the genitals—with the air oxygenating our blood in the lungs and pumping it to our brain and every part of our body. We write (just as we read) with our bodies as much as our minds.

The poet in this section allows the world to be in naked contact with him, until he can feel at one with what before had been separate—the roots and vines now seem part of the same erotic flow that he feels in his own naked body (“love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine”), and he is aware of contact and exchange, as he breathes the world in only to breathe it back again as an undistilled poem. All the senses are evoked here—smell (“sniff of green leaves”), hearing (“The sound of the belch’d words of my voice”), touch (“A few light kisses”), sight (“The play of shine and shade”), taste (“The smoke of my own breath,” that “smoke” the sign of a newly found fire within).

Now Whitman gently mocks those who feel they have mastered the arts of reading and interpretation. As we read this poem, Whitman wonders if we have “felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems,” and he invites us now to spend a “day and night” with him as we read “Song of Myself,” a poem that does not hide its meanings and require occult hermeneutics to understand it. Rather, he offers up his poem as one that emerges from the undistilled and unfiltered sources of nature, the words “belch’d” (uttered, cried out, violently ejected, bellowed) instead of manicured and shaped. This is a poem, Whitman suggests, that does not want to become a guide or a “creed,” but one that wants to make you experience the world with your own eyes. We take in this poet’s words, and then “filter them” from our selves, just like we do with the atmosphere and all the floating, mingling atoms of the world.

–EF

Section 2

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the pass- ing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
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 your self.

Afterword

What poet can resist the temptation to “possess the origin of all poems,” to drink continuously from the source of inspiration? This is what Whitman offers in the second section of “Song of Myself,” and much more—“the good of the earth and sun” and all the stars, not to mention learning how to take experience at first-hand: to see for oneself what is truly there, to establish, as Emerson wrote, “an original relationship with the universe.” To forge such a relationship the poet leaves behind the intoxicating perfume of human society and sets out on his own to breathe the odorless, inspiriting atmosphere of nature: a state of freedom, of readiness, in which the poet opens himself—and in flows the world. He invokes all of his senses—taste, touch, sound, smell, sight—in the long sentence fragment with which the second stanza concludes, for he is alert now to what is there: “The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea rocks, and of hay in the barn…” He takes it all in, he makes song out of his meeting with the sun, he extends his hand to anyone willing to stop with him for a day and a night. He promises to teach us to see and sing for ourselves, free of every influence, including that of the teacher. Here are the keys to a kingdom stretching to the very limits of the imagination. And here is how to take the measure of the universe—the grid within which the poems of the future will be written.

—CM

Question

How is it possible not to “take things at second or third hand” or not to “look through the eyes of the dead” or not to “feed on the spectres in books”? Don’t we all learn about the world and develop our beliefs by listening to and learning from others, both living and dead?</

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