I first read Whitman’s poetry in the late 1980s in Poland, having come across several sections of “Song of Myself” in a literary magazine. I wish I could say that I immediately fell in love with Whitman’s work, but the truth is I didn’t like it very much. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. I found it overbearing, overwhelming—an attitude best illustrated by the line “And what I assume you shall assume.” What kind of person, I asked myself, could be so arrogant? What kind of poet could assert, in such unequivocal terms, complete co-identity with his readers?
It occurs to me that one reason I was initially so put off by Whitman’s poetry was that my encounter with it was mediated; I was reading it in translation. When rendering “Song of Myself” into Polish, the translator Andrzej Szuba sometimes had to make significant choices, for example whether to use the singular or the plural form of the pronoun “you” every time it appears in the text. And so he translated “What I assume you shall assume” as “I cokolwiek przyjmę, wy przyjmiecie także” – the word “wy” indicating a collective rather than individual addressee. In Szuba’s version, Whitman is addressing a plural audience. But to me he sounded too much like an authoritarian ruler demanding loyalty from the masses.
Szuba’s translation, which was later published in book form as Pieśń o sobie (Kraków, 1992), is interesting for several reasons. His interpretation of the pronoun “you” is not consistent, so the addressee remains indeterminate, fluctuating between singular and plural forms. Later in the poem, when Whitman invites his “soul” to “loafe with [him] on the grass,” Szuba uses the masculine instead of the feminine gender (as would have been grammatically correct) to highlight the motif of same-sex desire. I find in Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom’s Whitman and the World that Whitman has had over fifty Polish translators. Among those, Szuba’s is an unconventional one, but one that reflects the dynamic nature of address in “Song of Myself.”
Later, after I moved to the United States, I started reading Whitman again, this time in English. When doing so, I often found myself having to reconcile the authoritarian Whitman, speaking to society at large in commanding, exhortatory tones and the egalitarian Whitman, addressing a single reader in a candid, intimate voice. I was intrigued when I came across this sentence in Henry David Thoreau about his experience of reading Whitman: “Sometimes I feel a little imposed on.” This feeling of imposition is exacerbated when “you” is understood in the plural. It is no accident that Pablo Neruda, while praising Whitman’s ambition, also called him “the first totalitarian poet.”
Today I’m no longer taken aback by Whitman because I think I have learned to read him both ways. At times I’m attuned to his ability to evoke collective experience. I view him as a poet of multitudes who teaches us how to talk to other people, especially strangers. At other times, however, I’m drawn to Whitman as a poet of private experience. I view him as a creative genius who teaches us how to live and (as Harold Bloom says) how to talk to ourselves. In those moments of connection and closeness I read the pronoun “you” in the singular.