At the beginning of the astonishing sprawl he’d later call “Song of Myself,” Whitman swept aside anything he’d written before, as if with one powerful gesture he pushed off his desk everything no longer useful to him. What came crashing to the floor? His own tentative early poems, and the expected forms and decorum of American poetry. Where does a poet find such courage, the will and stamina to make a radical beginning? The unsaid can be the source of an enormous pressure, a nearly physical need to say what living is like. If the poetic stances and forms of the hour don’t seem capable of incorporating the way the world feels, the pressure is intensified. Perhaps that’s why these three opening lines of Whitman’s seem to geyser out of the depths; he has waited so long for these words to emerge as if from nowhere:
I celebrate myself,
And what I shall assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Thus the poet introduces the man he has become or invented to the world. Robert Hass notes that in 1855 celebrate meant more an act of religious observance – “the priest celebrated the Eucharist” – than it suggested either happy affirmation or throwing a party. The poet’s first action here is to praise, affirming and elevating his own body and soul, but from his second line it’s plain that the notion of self here will not go uncomplicated.
And what I assume you shall assume is an act of performative speech; something becomes true because a person in authority says it is. The source of this authority, At this early point in the poem, the source of this authority seems only the speaker’s confidence. Assume can mean to take some premise as a given, or it can mean to take something on, as in to assume power, or you might take responsibility for something not originally yours, as in assuming a debt. The line could be taken as supremely arrogant; why should we think or feel or take on the responsibilities the speaker in this poem does? How would he have any way of knowing? His assertion doesn’t make sense until the line that follows: For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Poetic imagination isn’t usually directed by the will. Some other part of the self seems to go forward on its own. Stanley Kunitz used to say his poems began in sound, and sense had to fight its way in. Whitman’s poems, in his great early heyday, seem to have begun in voice. I’d guess this new and commanding speaker and his headlong assertions simply rose up in Whitman. He’d have had to figure out who it belonged to; this tone and manner seemed to bear no relation to anything else he’d written. This speaker has two boots planted firmly on the ground, and stands at his full height. The sweeping confidence in these opening lines sets the tone for the entire outpouring to follow.
Who does this voice address? It seems too big and public to be directed toward a lover or a friend, and yet there’s an intimacy about it, too. You wouldn’t say every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you to just anyone. It feels too personal for that, a claim of radical proximity – though it’s also a sly reminder that atoms don’t belong to anyone. What’s a part of you today may not be tomorrow. On that level of reality what would ownership mean, anyway?
If all atoms are held in common, then differences between us are immaterial: the color of your skin, your gender, your material wealth, the degree of privilege any of these grant you – as immaterial, on the atomic level, as whether you were born in Gdansk or Havana. Whitman says that our assumptions – what we understand, what we take into ourselves as we read his poem – can be the same because we are constituted in the same way. – The poem declares that this is a foundational truth for the pages to follow, that the poem operates under this law.
These three lines also establish the poem in the present tense. Whitman’s not telling us about something that already happened; his poem operates in the now, and seems to report on thinking, feeling and perception. Along the way we’ll hear short narratives of remembered experience, family stories, even the tale of an historic battle. But the body of the poem seems spoken in the moment of its composition, which lends the voice a living edge, and helps to account for the poem’s aura of timelessness. Because the text acknowledges the present tense of its own making, the reader seems to receive it in that same present tense, or at least a contiguous present. This is an aspect of Whitman’s modernity, anticipating what readers find in the poems of Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, who trace how it feels to be alive from moment to moment. The poem, speaking from its continuous present into our moment of attention, seems always to know that you, its reader, are there. You will not go unseen.
[Excerpted from What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, Forthcoming from W.W. Norton, April, 2020]