"Song of Myself": Why Walt Whitman Was the Original Kanye West
Dec 13 2013
Image by Courtney Nicholas
In this age of social media, self-promotion is the name of the game. We all have our little avatars, our little pictures and texts that we put out into the electronic world, that we hope get “liked.” Walt Whitman too was a self promoter, a performer, a purveyor of self.
“I exist as I am, that is enough,” says Whitman in the 1855 version of “Song of Myself,”
If no other in the world be aware I sit content
And if each and all be aware I sit content (“Song of Myself,” 46)
These enlightened sentiments are typical of Whitman in his first edition of Leaves of Grass, but these renunciations of investment in fame are not wholly true. Whitman’s actions show that he decidedly did care if readers were aware of him. After the initial publication of Leaves of Grass, a run of 800 copies, he wrote at least three anonymous reviews, both touting and criticizing but ultimately publicizing in the boldest kind of language his own work. The following quote from an articlehe he wrote for the United States Review in 1855 called “Walt Whitman and his Poems” shows another view Whitman had of himself:
Who then is that insolent unknown? Who is it, praising himself as if others were not fit to do it, and coming rough and unbidden among writers to unsettle what was settled, and to revolutionize in fact our modern civilizations? . . . You have come in good time, Walt Whitman! In opinions, in manners, in costumes, in books, in the aims and occupancy of life, in associates, in poems. (“Walt Whitman and his Poems,” Whitman)
The praise in the reviews is qualified, Whitman holds just short of extolling himself as the greatest poet that ever lived,
His scope of life is the amplest of any yet in philosophy. He is the true spiritualist. He recognizes no annihilation or death or loss of identity. He is the largest lover and sympathizer that has appeared in literature. (“Walt Whitman and his Poems,” Whitman)
Citing Whitman’s self-promotion isn’t a judgment of his intentions, he was hardly alone with his desire to sell books. What is interesting is the way the persona he developed in the poems of Leaves of Grass was also used for his self-promotion and the promotion of the book outside of the poems. The 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and the self-reviews create a nexus of texts that often overlap in style and content, but were ostensibly created and distributed for very different reasons: the book for artistic edification and the reviews to sell books. But these distinct projects are complicated by their similarities: so much of Whitman’s poetry is concerned with defining his persona and promoting the work, while the reviews are strangely poetic, to the point that they could be mistaken for passages from the poetry. This confusion becomes rich by the different contexts the similar material is presented in. The different contexts color the content’s significance while at the same time leveling out the different fields so that poetry becomes promotion and promotion becomes poetry.
When the third edition of Leaves of Grass was released in 1860, Whitman appended the anonymous reviews that he wrote at the end of the book and called them “Imprints.” These reviews that Whitman wrote are a kind of self-promotion that is usually laughed off as a quirky tangent of the Whitmanesque spirit of excess and glorious ego worship, which constitutes much of the poetry itself. Works such as “Song of Myself,” and in fact much of the reviews that Whitman wrote about himself, are surprisingly similar in content and even style – often to the extent of being ridiculously obvious—to the poetry. But the fact that the similar content is found both in poems attributed to Whitman and anonymous reviews changes the significance of the content.
In 2001 moviegoers Omar Rezec and Anne Belknap sued Sony pictures because a review of the late Heath Ledger vehicle A Knight’s Tale was revealed to be a fake. The film was publicized as “a winner” by a reviewer named David Manning from The Ridgefield Press. Upon inspection, Newsweek reporter John Horn revealed that journalist David Manning never worked at The Ridgefield Press and in fact Manning did not exist. Plaintiffs Omar Rezec and Anne Belknap sued Sony because they claimed to have seen the film based on the review. If they hadn’t read that “Heath Ledger was this year’s hottest new star,” they would not have seen the film and they wanted not just their $12 back but all the money that Sony made from their false reviews. The fabricated Manning had reviewed other Sony films like Hollow Man (“one hell of a scary ride”)and The Animal (“another winner”) and his quotes were prominently displayed on the movies’ posters. It was revealed that David Manning was the creation of Sony marketing executive Mathew Cramer who attributed the fake critics’ quotes to The Ridgefield Press because he had grown up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Sony attempted to defend their false mouthpiece as free speech but they were eventually forced to pay the state of Connecticut $326,000 for falsely attributing the quotes and settled an additional suit on the behalf of film fans for $1.5 million.
‘The studio was in the business of marketing films, and the advertisements were meant to reach potential moviegoers,’ Justices Vain Spencer and Robert Milano noted in their majority decision. ‘The fact that the films were noncommercial speech did not mean that the label also applied to the advertisements.’
Sony could have easily made the claim in their own voice that A Knight’s Tale was the best movie of the year, but it would have lacked the legitimizing power of having an outside critic say such a thing. Los Angeles Justice Reuben Ortega remarked about the trial: "no longer will people be seen lurching like mindless zombies toward the movie theatre, compelled by a puff piece. What a noble and overwhelming undertaking."
This anachronistic example of a studio’s self promotion under false pretense highlights the difference between statements made within a creative work and statements made about a creative work. There are many differences between a Heath Ledger film at the turn of the century and a book of 19th-century poems, but the realms of creative work and publicity have retained many elements that link Whitman’s self promotion to Sony’s self-promotion. It could be argued that Whitman’s reviews were an effort to teach readers how to approach the poetry with a wild new style and unconventional content, but often that is what a film review does if the movie is unconventional or difficult to follow in conventional ways. There are miles of distance between the reviews that Whitman wrote about Leaves of Grass – intricate and engaged with the specifics of the work and the author – and the generic blurb about A Knight’s Tale, but regardless of the amount of detailed and applied criticism in either piece they are both aiming to sell more of their product by impersonating figures of critical authority. The litigation against Sony sounds silly, as if anyone really bought tickets to the film because they read that Ledger gave the performance of the year, but the fact that litigation was taken shows that in this age deceptive promotion as commercial speech is not tolerated, at least not when its duplicity is blatantly revealed. The same kind of promotion looks different in a fictional context because a space is created between the artist and the art, so that the self-promoting persona within the work is given slack to be flawed. We allow our fictional characters to be flawed and arrogant as long as they are charming or intelligent, which we don’t as commonly allow in the realm ostensible non-fiction. Just look at Tom Cruise’s couch jumping scene on the Oprah show – a place that requires special kinds of performance that are very structured and planned, but are produced to make them seem non-fictional—and you will see behavior that would have be applauded in a film like Jerry Maguire, where expression of exuberate emotion makes audiences happy. But because Cruise acted this way on a talk show he looks like he is out of control, or crazy, or phony. Whitman’s self promotion within the poems of Leaves of Grass and in the self-reviews are in many ways similar, but the two contexts make the contents read very differently.
Whitman had no shame in promoting his own work, either within the work or in anonymous reviews, but his methods are different in each form. “Song of Myself” can be seen as one long promotion of Whitman’s new poetic work; it is an extended advertisement for the kind of writer he was and the kind of audience he was aiming for. Unlike the self-promotion in the anonymous articles, the self-promotion in the poem justifies itself by inclusion of the audience in the poet’s lauding of himself:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you . . .
(“Song of Myself”)
This is akin to today’s rappers whose lyrics entail claims of a superior style and being better than all the other MCs. Proclamations of genius are not uncommon; Kanye West, said recently on a talk show, "For me to say I wasn’t a genius, I would just be lying to you and to myself." The claims for greatness of style and lyrics become part of the work, thus in a self-reflexive way, part if not all of the substance of the lyrics are about the superiority of their very style and the lyrics themselves. Whitman tempers his claims of superiority within “Song of Myself” by simultaneously pumping up his persona and dissolving it into the people: he is the rapper with the barbaric yawp that isn’t afraid to contradict himself and shrink to the material below the readers’ boot soles. But, despite the proclamations of humility, the overall universally inclusive spirit, and the predominantly outward focus in “Song of Myself,” the poet remains at the center of the piece. The poem “Song of Myself” defines its poet by repeatedly declaring at length, in catalogues and clusters of subjects, what the poet is made of, what he believes in, how he carries himself and the kinds of people that he relates to. Like a rapper whose lyrics describe who he is, what he’s interested in and his own superiority, “Song of myself” is a poem of self-promotion. In contemporary rap there are generic expectations of flaunting of achievement and wealth, recounting of humble beginnings that lead through struggle to success, and also competition. Whitman does not call out any of his poetic competitors within his poems, and thus Whitman’s nineteenth century hip-hop is possibly less beligerent than his twentieth and twenty-first century counterparts, but his radical break from traditional poetic style and his promotion of that style is tantamount to a challenge to all poetic competitors.
In some of the anonymous reviews, Whitman not only explains his work but he pits himself against his great contemporaries from Europe. Whitman’s long line and free verse patterning has become one of the most influential styles of the past one hundred years. But at its inception Whitman felt the need to distinguish it from the popular kinds of blank verse that poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson used. From one of his other reviews of his own work, “An English and an American Poet,”
The best of the school of poets at present received in Great Britain and America is Alfred Tennyson. He is the bard of ennui and of the aristocracy . . .
Poetry, to Tennyson and his British and American elves is a gentleman of the first degree, boating, fishing, and shooting genteelly through nature, admiring the ladies, and talking to them in company with that elaborate half-choked deference that is to be made up by the terrible license of men among themselves. The spirit of the burnished society of upper-class England fills this writer and his effusions from top to toe . . . The models are same both to the poet and the parlors.
Listen to the regularity of the control of Tennyson’s pentameter lines from the opening of his short poem “Ulysses,”
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
And the long and irregular line of Whitman’s opening to “Song of Myself”:
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.
Houses and roof perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume . . . . it has no taste of the distillation . . . . it is odorless...
Here, the new style that Whitman is pushing is expansive. It uses the repetition of “loafer” and “perfume” to give the lines design, but there is no regular lineation as there is in the Tennyson. Both the substance of the poem and the style in which it is delivered are meant to carve out a new space for Whitman in the world of poetry.
As unabashed as Whitman is about exposing himself in “Song of Myself,” both by praising and humbling himself, he elevates himself and his work to revolutionary and canonical status in his reviews of himself. In his book The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Brady outlines the shift in the concept of fame from a posthumous consecration to something that can be achieved in one’s own life. Living celebrities are allowed, “to stand out of the crowd, but with the crowd’s approval; in its turn, the audience picks out its own dear individuality in the qualities of its heroes.” Whitman’s attempts at self-definition as a poet both above and of the crowd are akin to Brady’s idea of the permissive sphere of fame:
In the face of fragmenting social demands, fame creates its own etiquette, allowing the famous to be themselves in a way no one else can afford to be, and to be accepted into a mystic community of other famous people, a psychic city of mutual respect for each other’s individual nature. The celebration of true fame as a personal justification . . .” (The Frenzy of Renown, 7)
Whitman didn’t care about exposing himself as a self-reviewer, if anyone was paying attention, but it also shows what a piece of self-promotion Leaves of Grass is. Like a rapper proclaiming his greatness, Whitman is shouting about his innovations, his place in the world of letters, and thus much of the substance of the work is about the greatness of the work.
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