Whitman is a poet of all the senses, but listening, it seems, engaged him with special force: many of his work’s best-known passages set down what had come to him through the ear. No gesture of style so pronounced can be accidental, and I would guess that the turn toward hearing was a necessary counterweight to Whitman’s extroversion. To listen means to be quiet oneself. It is an action demanding inaction, requiring reception. For a person whose genius was kinetic, whose artistic ambition was virtually all-consuming, to listen was to renounce the bounding realms of ego. The ears hear what comes from outside the self. We cannot choose to open or close them, and the sounds of the earth come to us, entering our bodies and touching the ears’ attuned bones and hairs. Whitman’s listening, then, is a kind of synecdoche for his passion: through it he invites inside himself all of existence.
The essence of Whitman, for me, lies in this democratic identification with the whole of being. As with Melville and Ellison, those other capacious and unmistakably American writers, the magnitude of his work is created, conveyed, reflected not only by a free-striding, self-amusing, page-breaching largesse of language, but also by the warmth he brought to what that language holds. Towards animate and inanimate, intimate and distant, that which is humanly affable and that in us which resists affection, Whitman turns the steady regard of an equal: it is all a “song of myself.” Why is this not insufferable? Because the movement is not a dragging of outer realities into the ego, but the reverse—Whitman expands to embrace the entirety. He does this as a single, living person (“Is this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity, / Flames and ether making a rush for my veins, / Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them …”) and as a “kosmos” (“I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, / And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over …”). In both realms, we find an ecstasy thoroughly corporeal, an embodied knowledge wooed and won into speech.
“I Hear America Singing” holds one example of Whitman’s listening. Equally powerful is section 26 of “Song of Myself.” The halfway mark in that work’s liturgical year, it begins, “Now I will do nothing but listen.” Recorded in the lines that follow are the “bravura of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,” the sounds of stevedores’ labor and laughter, of a judge gravely, reluctantly, pronouncing a sentence of death. The passage moves from the sounds of the natural and industrial worlds to those of violoncello, tenor, and a soprano whose voice “wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possessed them.” Whitman asks no less ardor of us. His omnivorous, compassionate insistence that we live as his companion “cameradoes” in the fullest pitch and range of existence—that is the irresistible music of Whitman, for me, the song of all of ourselves.