One of These More or Less

Stephen Owen [tooltip content= “The Literary Review (Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1989)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

And these tend inward to me, and l tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be one of these more or less l am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

Walt WHitman has just delivered one of his breathless catalogues of American types-canal boy, conductor, baptized child, pedlar, bride, and more. Here, as so often in Whitman’s poetry, there is an uneasy relation between the poet’s sense of self and the existence of others-inevitably he will conclude either that those many are to become one in Walt, or that Walt is himself, in fact, already many. But behind the mask of a simple political model-the poetic “representative” who speaks for all the people–something dark and personal suddenly shows itself. He claims to be their democratic spokesman; he wants to be their elected representative in the Congress of Poets; this is to be an American poetry. But finally there is a twist in the words, a pressure from the recognition of how questionable, perhaps impossible a project it is: to be the voice for another person. He cautiously leaves the issue undecided: “And such as it is to be one of these more or less I am.”

When we read Whitman, we are not deceived. Whenever he issues his loud democratic “l am, ” he is never disassembling the essential Walt into a multiplicity of voices. His false claim of diversity is America’s old centripetal imperialism: ingesting others, melting, fusing: voices from older worlds are permitted to be only raw material for the new and tolerantly uniform man. Walt remains Walt: the ingested others have lost their names and become mere roles and professions-canal boy, conductor, baptized child, pedlar, bride. His plural America is a plurality of function, and the individual other sacrifices his or her voice, disappearing into a Walt-role.

Suppose there would be a defiant voice that refused to be a Walt-role. Who could she say she was?

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you-Nobody-Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise-you know!

Something subversive is happening here. Like Odysseus, Dickinson can escape the voracious cyclops by assuming a name that refuses a name: outis, nobody.

A century older now, we may try to be a century wiser. How to be “many together” is still our national problem, poetically and culturally-neither to be swallowed into a unity nor to be left mere solitaries, names cautiously withheld, occupants of adjacent spaces.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.