Whitman ended the previous section by willing his readers to become “bold swimmers,” and he continues the athletic imagery in Section 47, portraying both himself and his ideal readers as tough athletes, people who prefer the wild outdoors to the tame and domestic spaces of the house, who prefer “the maul, the oar, the hand-saw” to any “shutter’d room or school.” He wants his readers to imagine themselves as strong and tanned and bearded roughs rather than “latherers” (those who shave their faces and daintily “keep out of the sun”). Later, in his prose essay Democratic Vistas, Whitman would demand an entirely new kind of democratic literature: “Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.” Many of the problems of democracy, Whitman believed, could be solved by the nation changing its reading habits, learning to wrestle with authors and authority, to bring as much to every book as the book brings to the reader. Not accepting author-ity was the first step toward the democratization of the imagination. And the second step was to take “love” and “death” outside the home, outside the bounds of the domestic. To contain love and death within the conventions of romantic love and personal loss is to trivialize them: love and death are subjects for the open air, for the terrifying yet exhilarating melding of personal identity with all that is Not-Me.
So the reader that Whitman has been trying to forge throughout his poem is one who “most honors my style” by learning “under it to destroy the teacher.” The poet wants no quiescent imitators, no epigones, but rather tough readers who fight back, question, undermine, argue, set out on their own journeys. He would rather have “wicked” readers than “virtuous” ones who assume their “virtue” by conforming unthinkingly to societal norms. And the poet’s words will be just as tough and aggressive as the reader needs to be: even though he teaches us to “stray” from him, we cannot easily escape his poem because his words will follow us and “itch” at our ears until we understand them. Once we enter “Song of Myself” fully, we do not get out easily, even as the poem approaches its ending, even as the poet prepares us for departure.
Whitman, then, seeks a democratic readership, not a group of elites, not aristocrats or the intelligentsia, but rather the “mechanic” and “farm-boy” and “fisherman” and “hunter” and “young mother and old mother” and “girl” sewing her cloth. After the Civil War, he added the lines about “the soldier camp’d” on the night before battle who seeks out the poet on what might be the last night of the soldier’s life. These words are words that matter: they are not there to create pleasant rhymes and comforting thoughts; they are there to shake us free of preconceptions and to make us keenly aware of what surrounds us minute by minute. They are there to make that last night on earth full with significance. We may find ourselves tongue-tied, Whitman tells us, but never fear: that’s what the poet is here for, to articulate things for us that we could not before turn into words, to “loosen” the tongue so that we may speak the world—at first through him, then “resume” it on our own.
It is a truism that creative writing teachers either inspire their students to write in their own voice and style or produce replicas of themselves—protégés who cannot escape the master’s influence. And it is no accident that in this section Whitman praises the first form of education: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” The discovery of our identity, which depends upon the cultivation of our particular gifts, our calling, is a lifelong task; from the opening pages of “Song of Myself” Whitman urges us to seek that which is uniquely ours: “”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.” Now he calls himself “the teacher of athletes,” whom we admire for their ability to translate their individual talents into excellence, for the ways in which they test the limits of their minds and bodies. From the original Olympic Games in Athens to modern-day World Cup matches, tennis championships, or ski races we celebrate how great athletes “spread a wider breast” than anyone before them—become themselves, that is.
I was a midfielder on my college soccer team, and when my playing days came to an end I coached at my alma mater, where over the course of a season I learned that it is not enough to demonstrate a move or explain how to run into space: once a player has mastered a certain set of skills it is better to “teach straying from me,” in Whitman’s words. And what is more exciting than to imagine where such straying might lead? This is what will create a vibrant democracy—everyone straying according to their own lights, regardless of their station. Meanwhile the poet’s words will “itch at your ears until you understand them.”
Ichiro Suzuki, the star baseball player who has gotten more than 4000 base hits during his career in Japan and America, has an unorthodox style of hitting, bailing out of the batter’s box as he swings, as if to run toward first base even before making contact with the ball. A television announcer once said that with that swing he should never have succeeded—and yet one day he will enter the Hall of Fame, because he has perfected a way of hitting, a style of play, that is not replicable, like any masterpiece of art or literature, music or dance: works of the spirit that teach us how to live more fully—to resume, as Whitman said, “what I have told them.”
What teachers—in history, in religion, in your own life—have encouraged you to learn how to “destroy” them? What forms has that “destroying the teacher” taken? Are you grateful to the teacher for that surprising lesson?