Having spent most of my college career in philosophy classes, a discipline which will not tolerate deviation from the organized path of logical argument, I found Whitman’s writing style a little jarring. He has a tendency to jump from one thought to the next without a clear bridge between the two. This is often the case in literature, particularly poetry, but it has never bothered me quite so much as it does with Whitman. It took me some time to decide why exactly this was the case, then it occurred to me, Whitman is not writing as just a poet, he is writing as the poet philosopher.
Whitman is using his poetry to make an argument, he seeks to show the reader what he should aspire too. In philosophical writings this is done through a series of premises and conclusions in an attempt to make the reader see that there can be no other reasonable action other than what the author suggests. Whitman does not do anything quite so direct, he leads us along a road he has constructed through his imagery and description. He even sates in his poem that this is how he intends to make his point. Whitman writes “you shall no longer take things at second or third hand,” he seeks to do away with the lecture style of teaching life’s important lessons. Whitman desires to give the reader the tools to learn the lesson on his own.
The way in which Whitman does this is rather meandering, albeit with a destination in mind. He takes the reader through an examination of, basically, everything. Whitman seeks to describe, in a first hand sense, all the experiences of those in America. He ranges from the farmer loading hay to the trapper marrying a Native American bride while her family watches on in silence to the recently diagnosed mental patient on his way tot he asylum. He even describes the more simplistic life of various animals as a contrast to the hurried nature of humanity. In showing the reader such a variety of life Whitman is attempting to lead the reader towards an understanding of how the true Poet embraces everything equally. His goal is to make the reader feel connected to everything around him.
This approach, as with all approaches, is both detrimental and beneficial. Whitman claims that he does not have anymore answers than anyone else. In part of the poem where the speaker is addressing a child Whitman writes “How could i answer the child?…I do not know what it is anymore than he.” However, Whitman also seems to consider himself one of the great Poets he considers to be, in a sense, enlightened. It begins to feel like one is being led by a guide who doesn’t know the road any better than one’s self but knows the destination like his own hand.
However, although I make these complaints, I still left the poem feeling as though I had been on a journey beyond where I could have gone myself. Perhaps that is the point, it’s not about knowing the road it’s about being willing to learn the road as you go. It could be said that a philosophical argument is like being shown the milestones as you drive down the road but not being allowed out of the car. I think that Whitman’s style for his argument was perhaps the only choice for the type of argument he was making. No matter how many logical proofs you show a person, if your goal is to convince them to experience you won’t accomplish that until you allow them to actually experience. So perhaps Whitman is not the most knowledgeable guide one could find, but he is certainly the most enjoyable.