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.