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Song of… Me (karen)

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
(“Song of Myself”, 1855, p.86)

“I have never understood why he should be called ‘the good gray poet,'” wrote the novelist Henry Miller.  ” The color of his language, his temperament, his whole being is electric blue.”

Blue is my favorite color– the color of the eddies lapping the Brooklyn bridge and ferries, the color of the deep nightswimming sky over Mannahatta, the color of his eyes, the color of these lines.  Water imagery floats through the poems of Leaves of Grass, and it’s not just because Walt loved swimming and bathing (which he absolutely did, by the way.  In the ’40s, he frequented several ‘floating pools’ docked along the Brooklyn shore, favoring “Gray’s Salt Water Baths” through his years editing the Brooklyn Eagle).

Water, and by my own leap of imagination the color blue, represents refreshment and renewal.  Consider the daily baptisms that framed his working days as he commuted to and from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Newspaper Row.  As Whitman suggests in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” this ritual cleansing helped clarify his purposes, stabilize his insecurities, and purify his darkest days.  Or think of the plunge the 29th bather takes in the world’s favorite passage from “Song of Myself.”  Here is a person– maybe even a woman!– who is living out her desires for the first time, coming out from behind the curtains to celebrate her body, fulfill her soul.

On 14 October 1842, Walt was part of the massive crowd gathered in City Hall Park to see the first-time spectacle of fresh running water.  Spouting nearly 50 feet high, the Croton Fountain symbolized the successful completion of the Croton Acqueduct, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest engineering feats.  It also represented a much needed new defense against the great fires that destroyed whole neighborhoods in the early part of the century, as well as a force to combat the epidemics of yellow fever and cholera that swept through the city’s tenements and slums.

What do I see and admire in these electric blue lines?  Whitman’s celebration of beginnings (again and again!), of taking the plunge, of diving right in.  His appreciation of the beautiful different strokes of us different folks.   His developing idea of the fluidity of identity.  And our swim together through oceans and oceans of love.

That's me in the corner (as dear Mr. Stipe would sing), with my NYU students at the Croton Fountain.

That's me in the corner (as dear Mr. Stipe would sing), with my NYU students at the Croton Fountain.

1 comment to Song of… Me (karen)

  • I like the idea that these lines (as well as the poem) represent a continuous flow of water. May it be a river in NYC or the Danube, the Nile or any other river – this Song is universal. I would not only limit Whitman to his New York because this passage works on numerous levels. The sheer magnitude of the lines surpasses just the American continent.

    Also, the last part “I am the teacher of athletes … destroy the teacher” is quite inspirational. It can be interpreted in many ways, one of which I believe urges the reader to follow the poet’s example and overcome all the obstacles to become even better.

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