Poem of the week: from I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman | Books

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems;,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you, or within me, the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

“I Sing the Body Electric,” Walt Whitman begins, in Part 1 of his best known and most enthralling early poems: “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,/ They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, /And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.” It was one of 12 poems Whitman printed and published himself as Leaves of Grass (1855), the first collection of a writer who, in his mid-30s, had suddenly found his unique form and themes.

The poem was untitled, and began somewhat less ringingly, with a version of what was subsequently to become the second line. Revised, and with the addition of Part 9, the section that forms this week’s poem, it appeared as Poem of the Body in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, and was ultimately incorporated into the sequence Children of Adam (1867).

“Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?/
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?/ And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?/ And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” Part 1 ends with these apparently rhetorical and somehow desperate questions. The grammar seems deliberately convoluted, and it has been suggested that Whitman was struggling between the revelation and the concealment of his homosexuality. But these questions, shadowed by the opposition of corruption and “discorruption”, might equally open the critique of slavery, an important theme addressed in two sections of the poem. Whitman had been appalled by the slave auctions which took place not far from his lodgings. As for the big, quasi-theological question, “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” – this is crucial. The whole poem is the unfolding of Whitman’s answer.

It’s directly alluded to in the opening of Part 9 and reiterated in the memorable summing-up that concludes the poem and its long list of all things bodily: “O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, /O I say now these are the soul!”

The length and bagginess of Whitman’s inventory have provoked some criticisms. It doesn’t strictly follow the organisational principles that first seem to operate – head to toes, exterior to interior. There’s some mixing of categories as the poem gathers speed near the end. But the rollercoaster is still an exciting, if a bumpy, ride. The specificity of the diction is a clear virtue: where it’s less than specific, the euphemism or obscure coinage (man-root, neck-slue) forms a collectible linguistic curio. The way in which medically untrained people talk about their bodies is always fascinating. For most of us, the vocabulary is an odd, rather embarrassed assortment of the informal and the official, and so it is with Whitman. His vocabulary includes the plainest, everyday denotations – head, eyes, mouth and nose – with a few Latinate sprinklings: tympan and scapula. Some compound words are invented but vividly understandable: eye-fringes, hind-shoulders and lung-sponges. Sometimes, there’s an added descriptive detail, like “The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame”, that he seems to write from the experience of viewing preserved human remains.

As the list accumulates, abstract nouns appear – sympathies, sexuality, maternity. Whitman deliberately makes his case for the inclusion of women in the democratic body, and emotions enter the mix of feminine attributes (“tears, laughter, weeping, love-look …”). The figure is not always gendered: sometimes it could be either male or female, and, perhaps, either black or white: “The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair.” A particular relationship just might be evoked in “The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body”. There are a few other moments when a detail will suggest that the universal love-poem embraces a personal love-affair, but there are no details that can’t be read as modes of the universal.

As the section unfolds, the body seems increasingly active, whether “reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening” or displaying in close-up “The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes.” It’s plain that the speaker has closely observed actual bodies in motion. For all the excited, headlong oratory, Whitman is at least as much a scientist as a romantic poet. The very phrase “body electric” includes both dimensions.

The body he animates is electrified above all by the way in which the parts interact, whether the interaction is explicit or implied, and by the way in which bodies interact, in mutual respect or its opposite, exploitation. As he tells us, bodies (“the likes of you and me”) are poems. This particular praise-song is to the young, healthy body, idealised, perhaps, but not in any sense deified. How astonishing it seems now that lines so frank in vocabulary (and metrically so free) could have been written in 1855. But then, this was the New World, and Whitman’s first symphony.

Source: The Guardian

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