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Walt Whitman and Negative Capability

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

Walt Whitman had Keatsian “negative capability”—a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate himself and flow into some other being and speak it from within—and speak himself in the process. “I am the man—,” he wrote, “I suffered—I was there.” A transaction seems to occur: Whitman gives whatever he flows into a presence in human consciousness, and in return, this other thing or creature gives Whitman a situation and vocabulary which enable him to see and articulate his own being in a new way.

If you talk to a baby in iambs, it may laugh, for probably all sensible creatures find the reduction of speech to an exaggerated singsongamusing. But if you croon to a baby in Whitmanesque poetic lines, the baby quite possibly will croon back, also in Whitmanesque lines, and the two of you will understand each other perfectly, without words but with the music words will have when their time comes. Whitman understood the physicality of the words of poems: since a word is shaped out of breath by the poet’s physical vocal apparatus, it can be said to rise out of the poet’s very flesh. Since those who read the poems (speaking them aloud to themselves, of course) shape the same words again, but in the other direction, in their own mouths and throats, the words can be said to enter their very flesh.

Walt Whitman’s voice is often, in his best poems, very personal and distinctive and “nigh,” and sounds a universal note—making one think of the voice in section 5 of “Song of Myself”: “Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.” For reasons better explored on another occasion, the more personal a poem, the more likely it is to express a common condition. So “Song of Myself,” the song of one man, becomes the song of a tribe. What begins as autobiography is transmuted and opens out into the inner autobiography of us all.


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