Jul 29, 2010

Whitman and the birds

When Whitman says, as he often did, that his poetry and his life or his poems and his body are the same, it should probably be understood in light of his comparison of himself with birds. The idea of the relationship between the bird and the bird's song is the same one Whitman is trying to convey about the relationship between him and his poetry. When he said, as he did to the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1876, "more than all I determined from the beginning to put a whole living man in the expression of a poem" and, as he did in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," a statement summing up and explaining all of Leaves of Grass, that the poem that was his life's work was "an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record," what those somewhat strange statement's mean might best be understood by consideration of how a bird's life and song are inseparable. Birds don't sing to express some sentiment, there is no gap, for them, between sign and signified. Their songs are, essentially, the same as being alive. In the same way a motor's hum is the same as it being on, a bird sings because it's a bird, because it's alive. In this way it's quite literal to say to the bird, "If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die." This is a prime example of what Whitman's talking about when he talks about "vivification," "the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only," which, for Whitman, is what language is supposed to be, and what poets are supposed to make happen, how they save the language. It's not incidental that he compares himself so constantly to birds; it is, in fact, an integral part of his understanding of poetry.

Whitman isn't just offering the bird's song as an analogy for poetry. As presented in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," birds are actually the originators of the poetry Whitman wants to practice, and they are the ones who taught it to him. In a way, he understands himself to be of the bird's school of poetry. It is from them that "A thousand warbling echoes have started to life with me, never to die" and from that experience that Whitman's "own songs awakened." The poem acts as a coming-of-age story, an autobiographical account of how little Walt became a poet, how the poet went into the wilderness and found his poet's voice. He starts on Paumanok, "Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves" (19) and reminiscences about being a child there, remembering the beginning, his beginning, moved by tears to remember that moment of origin, when the poet became the poet:

Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and the Fifth-month grass was growing
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather'd guests from Alabama, two together,
And their next, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And ever day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

There is, here, a standard coming-of-age story about a childhood experience where one is exposed to the facts of sex and death, yet Whitman is also fixed on the form of these revelations, the bird's singing. "I," he writes, "with bare feet, a child, the wafting my hair, / Listen'd long and long" and "treasur'd every note." While he's certainly interested and moved by the subjects of which he perceives the bird to be singing, it is the singing itself that acts as the revelation. It is the song that awakens the boy, transforms him from boy to poet. It is the song to which he, like a child coming forward for conversion at the end of an impassioned tent revival, commits himself for forever. It is not the subject of the singing that changes the boy into the poet, but the singing itself. Whitman even suggests that the song wasn't really about what it was about, but was intended, actually, for him and for the purposes of his revelation of poetry. He uses what could be taken as religious conversion language to describe how he heard the song, "For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now I have heard you, / Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake." It is the song, specifically, which awakened him, and the song, specifically, to which he commits himself, saying, "never more shall I cease perpetuating you." This is why, when Whitman identifies with birds and compares himself to birds, it's not just a nature-loving analogy, but is, in fact, for Whitman, a very serious move.