The elusive state or quality of style that the hip-hop game calls flow consists of a web of verbal, aural, and intellectual associations. Rhyme and rhythm are only the most noticeable of these associations, the thickest threads of the web. A skilled rapper also works with repetition, imagery, and rhetoric to form the web’s interior, a complex of linkages from word to word, line to line, stanza to stanza. Not at all a rhyming poet, let alone the gray great-grandfather of rap, Walt Whitman seems to me, nevertheless, a poet who works in a state of flow.
There are moments in the dizzyingly oracular opening section of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, the poem eventually to be titled “Song of Myself,” so charged with flow as to physically affect the reader. The breathless quality of such passages depends sometimes upon an emphatic, exclamatory repetition:
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of the departed sunset! Earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Sometimes, though, the flow depends upon humor, or alliterativeness, or even a dash of internal rhyme: “Washes and razors for foofoos . . . . for me freckles and a bristling beard. // What blurt is it about virtue and about vice? Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent” (37, 22-24). Beyond the playfulness of associations such as foofoos/freckles, bristling/beard, blurt/virtue, virtue/vice, the passage incorporates a sort of rhetorical flow, adopting a stance of defiance, a tone Whitman frequently assumes in “Song of Myself” which tends to ramp up the poem’s urgency. For what it’s worth, it’s also a tone frequently encountered when a rap verse works its way up to an especially forceful flow.
Equally defiant is a quotable quote that Whitman weaves in a few stanzas later: “Writing and talk do not prove me, / I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face / With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.” Here the strongest thread of flow is the passage’s emotional tone (associating with what preceded it: “My final merit I refuse you … never try to encompass me”), with lighter reliance on wordplay (plenum/proof) and repetition.
At other points, the breathlessness of “Song of Myself” is more literal, as Whitman utilizes the technique of line length to force the reader to gasp for breath (if only mentally), as in the following passage, which concludes with a line so long it requires two oversets in the lineation of the 1855 edition:
My lovers suffocate me! (…)
Crying by day Ahoy from the rocks of the river . . . . swinging and chirping over my head,
Calling my name from flowerbeds or vines or tangled underbrush,
Or while I swim in the bath . . . . or drink from the pump at the corner . . . or the curtain is down at the opera . . . . or I glimpse at a woman’s face in the railroad car;
For a rapper, it is the first few lines of a verse that establish flow, that lets us know the characteristics of his or her voice, stance, and presentation. “Song of Myself” is where Whitman does the same, establishing a physical, propulsive, undeniably vocal quality for which I can’t think of a better word than flow.