(Mis)Understanding Whitman

“To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.” –Walt Whitman

walt-whitmanWalt Whitman is the principal of my pantheon of poets. For 50 years, Whitman has been my muse. To realize I’ve misunderstood him is a serious blow.

In the “Who goes there?” canto (Canto 20) of “A Song of Myself,” Whitman states that the converging objects of the universe flow to him, as though he were an oracle whose job it is to define the objects’ meanings for the rest of us.

That’s not it. “That’s not it at all,” T. S. Eliot might say. Whitman is saying the objects “appear” to him to flow. They appear to be written objects and he must figure out for himself what the objects mean. That’s much different than being an oracle.

In my 50 year relationship with this poem, I have understood it literally rather than metaphorically.

“I’ve got something to show you,” says Michael Goldman’s Muse. “Stand here.” Maybe that’s what Walt has been saying to me. The converging objects of the universe appear to flow. Standing on the bank of the river in which I see the objects flowing, my eye catches a hieroglyph, a metaphor, or a symbol. Like a tarot card or an I Ching tetragram, it inspires interpretation. I must explain what the writing means to me.

I’ve thought of the “Who goes there?” canto as a manifesto or creed. If it is a creed, it’s Whitman’s creed. “These are my symbols,” Whitman might say, “and this is what they mean to me. You have to find your own symbols and write your own interpretation.”

Whitman has been a constant companion who has served me well despite any misunderstanding. The clarity with which I now see the poem deepens my admiration of Whitman’s art putting our relationship on a higher level of understanding.

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