Now the tone of the poem quiets in a very unsettling way, as Whitman’s “I” simply stands aside and observes. He observes a scene of birth and one of death, with a lusty love scene in between. Just as in the previous section he was claiming to be a voyeur, with his gaze penetrating through our clothes to our bodies, so here he lifts the cover from a baby to gaze upon it, casually shooing away the flies; he gets a kind of bird’s-eye view of a young couple about to make love in the bushes; and he observes and describes a suicide in a bedroom. Are these scenes related? Is there a kind of narrative implied (is this baby that the poet sees perhaps the result of the young couple giving in to their sexual desires, and is the suicide the result of the young woman’s shame?), or are these just three unrelated scenes of different stages of life, as the poet observes the joys and horrors that take place somewhere around us every minute of every day?
The pace of the poem picks up as Whitman gives us his first urban catalog, each line capturing a different sound and movement of the city. In these catalogs, we hear Whitman at his slangy best, as he records the incessant noise of the urbanscape, as if the pavement itself is blabbing away, talking nonstop, saying indeterminate things. He hears the “sluff of boot-soles,” as he employs the informal spelling of “slough,” using it to mean “plodding through mud” but also capturing the sound of all those shuffling boots. The wild variety of city sounds—blab and sluff and clank and clinking and hurrahs and flappings and echoes and groans and exclamations—meld into a cacophonous urban music, becoming the “living and buried speech” that is “always vibrating here.” This is Whitman’s version of what James Joyce would call “epiphanies” or of William Carlos Williams’ belief that “poetry exists in the very language to which we have been listening all our lives.” Just listen to the city streets, Whitman says, and you will hear the full range of human emotions, from the “groans” of those who have eaten too much to the groans of those who are “half-starved.” The city compresses all human experience into a tight, noisy space, and its sounds always vibrate with meaning.
When Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s read the line that ends “what howls restrained by decorum,” he discovered the origin of Howl, his poem that defined the Beat Generation. Howl laid out just what happened when all those restrained howls finally burst through the veneer of decorum, releasing those “who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, . . . and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles.” Ginsberg’s poem is a mid-twentieth-century extension of Whitman’s catalog, still finding poetry in the most unlikely urban places. Whitman’s “I” remains the unfazed observer, looking closely, absorbing the good and the bad, the adulteries and the emergencies and the hidden lusts, reporting them, and then moving on. His persona here is not unlike the “impassive stones” of the city itself that “receive and return so many echoes.” Poems are always vibrating all around us, if we only open our ears.
Walking in New York City, schooled in the music of “Song of Myself,” you may hear a version of “the blab of the pave” rehearsed in the eighth section: people on Fifth Avenue making way for a businessman shouting into his cell phone, a homeless veteran blessing an old woman under the scaffolding of a high-rise, a taxi driver asking for directions. Passion (birth, love, death) provides the melodic structure: a trio of couplets balanced by a fourteen-line stanza—a free verse sonnet in the form of a catalogue; if the time signature has changed to match the acceleration of modern life, the key remains the same: more, more. Watch and listen, the poet says. There are invitations everywhere. Abroad in the city at night, alone or with someone close to you, it may feel as if you are taking soundings in the babble of the crowd queuing for a show, in the murmur of a couple posing for a photograph in Times Square, in the clatter of horses’ hooves outside the entrance to Central Park, in the wail of a siren by the river... These are echoes of what rang in the ear of the poet who was attuned to the music of all “the souls moving along.”
Homer’s catalogue of ships sailing to Troy, Ovid’s list of trees, biblical genealogies—enumeration is a rich poetic device. And the names that Whitman gives to different aspects of the city, its “living and buried speech,” what resonates and what stays hidden, bring Adam’s task to mind. This rough, this kosmos, is the first man of democracy, the invisible walls of which rise in the souls of every man, woman, and child, and “Song of Myself” unites what the ancient Chinese called “the ten thousand things of the universe.” New York is all around us.
Think about Whitman’s catalog of city sounds in this section. How would the catalog of sounds be different in cities today? How would the sounds be different from one city to another, or from a city in one country to a city in another country? What are the dominant urban sounds today?