Walt Whitman’s poetry often relies on lists to convey multiple aspects of the world. Indeed, through the catalogues of people, places and things that he uses in his poetry, Whitman is able to display and touch on a breadth of aspects of life that make his poetry applicable to more people and also demonstrate his commitment to showcasing different perspectives. Because he’s able to include so many different things, cataloguing becomes important in not limiting the scope of his poems, and it also provides a unique rhythm to Whitman’s poems that few poets effectively replicate.
This cataloguing system is significantly present in his “Song of Myself,” which features numerous lists and tackles significant themes such as individuality and how people navigate living in the world. Because the nature of the cataloguing poetic device allows the speaker to use multiple things to explain a phenomenon, lists in “Song of Myself” allow Whitman to explore the complexity of identity and how individuals are formed from social forces and from within.
Indeed, the list that I will explore demonstrates that both the body and the soul are important factors for identity development, and that any “Song of Myself” relies on a variety of things to truly demonstrate identity: influences from others, physicality, spirituality, and a holistic collection of factors from all aspects of the world.
It is quite common for Whitman to use the listing poetic device, and he uses it effectively to demonstrate a breadth of subject. For example, in his poem “I Hear America Singing,” he discusses the “varied carols I hear; / Those of mechanics – each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong; / The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam / The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work” (lines 1-4).
The poem goes on to include the shoemaker, the mother, and other people who live in America and how exactly each one sings. Indeed, in this poem, Whitman lists numerous different experiences that different faces of the American workforce might have, using their job titles and the common theme of music to illuminate different aspects of American life.
Whitman demonstrates how “Each [is] singing what belongs to her, and to none else; / The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, / Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs” (lines 8-10), showing that everyone in this list of people each has their own stake on identity and their own voice in the song of America, allowing this list to demonstrate a multifaceted perspective on what identity means and what the actual makeup of a community is.
Indeed, this poem is the perfect representation of the Whitman list: not only does it use this list of individuals to make a point about America and individuality at the same time, but the poem relies on the repetitive but varied rhythm that the list provides through its consistent use of a pattern of listing people. This rhythm demonstrates the broader purpose of the list – it provides a consistency and pattern for the poem to base itself off of, thereby showing the interconnectedness of the people discussed in the poem, but also allows each person a large amount of individuality through the poem as well.
In particular, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is emblematic both of his work in general, especially his most famous Leaves of Grass, and the way in which he uses lists as a poetic device. “Song of Myself” explores individuality simply through its title, and looks at the numerous ways in which an individual is able to define oneself.
Obviously, one can pick oneself apart as an individual and start there: “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, / Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, / I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death” (Section I). Here, we see the atoms of the speaker of this poem, their origins, and their age, clearly placing an individual at the center of the identity of this speaker. Other forces are at play in this poem, however: Whitman also uses lists to show other forces on identity.
He states, “Trippers and askers surround me, / People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation, / The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, / My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues, / The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,” (Section IV), demonstrating how a variety of others have also impacted the speaker’s identity and show that any “Song of Myself” also necessarily includes the voices of others.
This poem embodies why Whitman uses lists because it allows him to send a variety of messages that all point back to the individuality of the speaker, even though the lists themselves may or may not be about him. Because of this, Whitman is able to demonstrate a more complicated perspective on identity and also show a number of different factors that can affect it. Indeed, the lists in “Song of Myself” demonstrate a broad interpretation of identity and the depth of which different identities are connected to one another.
Section five of the poem explores the speaker’s relationship with his soul, saying, “I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other” (Section V). This section of the poem deals directly with the self’s relationship with the soul, and how this aspect of identity is closely related to a larger spiritual realm. The speaker asks the other to “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,” demonstrating a much broader connection to the world through the soul.
Indeed, as the rest of the poem has shown, identity is connected to many different factors such as other people and internal thoughts, but in this section of the poem, Whitman clearly separates the soul from the body and demonstrates that identity is connected to both. The lists in “Song of Myself” and other Whitman poems allow the poet to depict the interconnectedness of various aspects of identity and life, and also the complexity with which identity is formed.
The list itself in Section V also shows how complex the relationship between the body and the soul. Whitman states that the speaker knows “that the hand of God is the promise of my own, / And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, / And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, / And that a kelson of the creation is love,” (Section V), showing that identity is wrapped up in many different forces.
Indeed, the soul is clearly a part of identity, as well as the hand and spirit of God, “all the men and women ever” are to be considered siblings, and that creation as a larger concept is essential to this speaker and his identity. The list itself continues to compound upon these complexities as the speaker states, “And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, / And brown ants in the little wells beneath them, / And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed” (Section V).
This natural imagery demonstrates yet another complex relationship with the self’s identity: here, the conversation that the self has with the soul is complicated through its connection with the physical earth and nature, showing yet another aspect of identity that the speaker and “Song of Myself” must grapple with. This list shows the essential mind/body disconnect present in identity, and also the widespread influences that the world and other people have on oneself. In addition to this one, many of the lists in this poem show how complex identity can be and show how many things constantly affect it.
For example, the speaker states, “The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready, / The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon, / The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged, / The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow. / I am there,” (Section IX), again showing a broad connection to the world and the self’s constant and close relationship with the earth. Not only does this show the world’s relationship with the self, but also the self’s relationship with the natural and the soul.
Again, though, it’s not simply spiritual and personal selfhood that dominates the speaker’s mind. Whitman shows other members of society, stating, “The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner, / The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm, / The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready, / The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches, / The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar,” (Section XV), showcasing other ordinary members of society’s interaction with the world.
Lists in “Song of Myself” consistently demonstrate the multiple communities that individuals are involved with. Walt Whitman uses the poetic device of cataloguing consistently in his poetry to demonstrate the multifaceted forces that influence identity formation and the complicated realities of life in the real world. Indeed, throughout all of his different poems, Whitman uses the list to show different perspectives on the world, different types of people, and the many different things that can affect a person’s self.
In his “Song of Myself,” Whitman demonstrates just how complicated a person’s identity is, and how it interacts with the rest of society. Through his lists, he reinforces exactly this: by being able to give notice to many different people, places, things and ideas, Whitman is able to more aptly describe the complexity of the world and, moreover, the difficulty in pinning down identity.
These lists show just how difficult it can be to “sing oneself,” and just how much can go into it – not only do other people, one’s own soul, a connection to nature and the more psychological aspects of selfhood affect someone’s identity, but the holistic aspects of the world and its interactions with people further complicate the speaker’s identity in this poem. Indeed, in a poem all about identity and one’s interactions with the world, lists serve a great role to shed light on the complexities of identity and the ways in which multiple factors influence people.