Walt Whitman Jim Groom, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or
apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
It’s amazing just how much Whitman’s “Song of Myself” frames some deeply problematic questions for me right now. While studying the iconic frontispiece to the 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass” and working through the poem I find within it everything that has been plaguing my ego for the last two years of so. This question of framing an identity, being both a finely tuned persona as well as a fleshy, eating, drinking and breeding man. A spectrum of identities that are fragmented and often weighty in their incongruity and dissonance. In fact, after reading Gary Richard’s post that provocatively frames Whitman as a poser in the frontispiece (in the perjorative, rather than literal, sense of that word) I began to think a bit more about the construction of an identity (or identities) in relationship to some sense of authenticity.
Gary frames his argument by means of an image of a distant relative from the 19th century, whose distended paunch and work soiled clothes provides us with an arguably more authentic “rough.” In fact, he gives us an image that can be understood as a more documentary vision of the 19th century citizen—is he somehow realer? Such a strain of thought suggests the complex tensions between an artist’s framing of their subject—interestingly shedding Whitman’s list of people and types in as much a documentary as a poetic framework. Which, to follow a line of thought, brings to mind texts like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or films like the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman (1968) or Gray Gardens (1976), wherein the documentarian are both artists and interlopers, very much constructing their space within these films as both archivists and artists. Capturing a moment as well as amplifying its particular tensions, beauty, and purpose.
So then, how do we begin to deconstruct the relationship between Whitman the poet and his seemingly infinite identities and poses in “Song of Myself” as a literary documentarian of an entire nation of people, a figure that attempts to encompasses all races, genders, and classes? How might the construction of innumerable identities, be at once the erasure of self though imposing one’s own self on everyone?
In all people I see myself, none more and not one barley-
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
Now while these questions may lead me down a rabbit hole I won’t soon emerge from, they also help focus some issues surrounding my own identity. For a large part of my identity, rather than being deeply embodied as we see Whitman figuring in his poetry, is predominantly disembodied and fragmented. Blogging almost daily over the last four years about a wide range of ideas places one within an ongoing stream of thought that is personal, public, and professional all at once. A space wherein one’s constant publishing and re-publishing around a series of ideas ultimately gives way to a particular trace and sense of one’s identity that is just as much constructed as authentic. Often times equal parts fiction and fact, a partial and inadequate representation of one’s work and life, that is both mindful and hungry for an audience, while at the same time pained and imprisoned by it.
At the heart of this identity—which for me is online and almost entirely disembodied—there’s a schizophrenic transition to alternative selves that seems to me at the core of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a sense of performance, construction, and laying bear. In fact, the frontispiece image I chose above is a portrait immediately following a short film Tom Woodward and I made that is premised on the struggling with the idea of an online self and the concomitant act of bearing and tracing one’s life through a series of fragmented streams across a variety of loosely connected sites. “I Just Shaved” is a rather physical and filmic attempt to deal with this question of fragmentation and disembodiment. The portrait is premised on an overt quote to The Royal Tenenbaums that is fused with a highly personal and documentary recording of both transformation and the willingness to bear it all in this new environment, which is often as painful as it is liberating.
Yet, that’s exactly the magic of Whitman “Song of Myself” in my mind, he manages to both fragment and disembody his identity throughout the poem in order to reconstitute a much richer composite of identities that, oddly enough, re-imagine a sense of authenticity through posing. A shadowy idea of truth through types. It’s alchemy, and I love it.
This hour I tell things in confidence.
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.
Image credit: The great Bionicteaching’s “Rebirth of slick”