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A Woman Waits for What Now?

When I sat down to do the reading for Whitman this week I was all prepared for some more descriptive work of the busy life of the farmer and the gorgeous views along the universal path. I poured myself a glass of wine and made myself some dinner, then as I sat reading I had one of those moments where, if it had been a movie, I would have dropped my monocle in my glass and uttered “My word!” to the woman with the mink wrap sitting next to me.

I found myself reading through Whitman’s poetry, particularly “A Woman Waits for Me,” with a feeling similar to, although I’m sure greatly muted, the feelings most likely felt when the book first came out. In short, I felt rather scandalized. Now I’m not particularly uncomfortable when it comes to talk of sex, although perhaps more so than some, but I hadn’t really expected such graphic detail and was a bit surprised, especially after I realized what he was referring to when he talked about “the sensitive, orbic, underlapped brothers” (I’d started the next line before I got it).

Now this post probably makes me sound a bit prudish but I think it was more the fact that I wasn’t expecting it from a book published in 1891 (shows how much I know about Whitman), then the actual poem. However, after my original “Whitman, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I took a step back to look at the poetry in context.

After a conversation with Sam P. I spent some time thinking about the time period Whitman was writing in and how that may have affected his work. I think it’s expressive of the fact that Whitman was trying to wake people up that he used such graphic language and colorful descriptions (I mean, he compares his ejaculation to a river, clearly he’s trying to make people notice). Had he used softer language, more veiled descriptions, his writing would never have had the effect that it did. If he had merely referred to his gentle caresses and loving release, or something equally as mundane and boring, people could have simply written off his work as something for schoolboys to giggle over behind the schoolhouse. Instead, people were forced to categorize his work as something scandalous and unfit for public viewing, particularly women with their weak constitutions.

Now, it seems like this would do the opposite of what Whitman wanted, which was to lead people to recognize the value of being alive, but what his scandalous work did was make people confront their values (and even as I write this I wonder why I was so scandalized by his words). In order to categorize Whitman’s work as scandalous, the readers had to address what about it was scandalous, in doing so they had to examine why such things went against their moral code. I’m sure most people simply picked up a bible and ran, but I’m betting there were a select few who were able to look at Whitman’s words and wonder “Why don’t we celebrate our sexuality?” I’m not saying these people then ran over to Whitman’s house and ravished him, although maybe some did, but at least the thought was there. Now that they were thinking it, Whitman’s plan was in motion. If they could question that belief for even a moment, couldn’t they question the value of slavery? Of suppression of women? Of the mistreatment of laborers?

So yes, Whitman managed to scandalize and shock, but he also managed to plant a seed of awareness, which after all, is the beginning of his utopia. So Whitman, I may be a little uncomfortable hearing you talk about “the limpid liquid in a young man” or your “slow rude muscle” but bravo to your bravery, bravo to your scandal.

~ by bcbottle on September 13, 2009.


7 Responses to “A Woman Waits for What Now?”

  1. Hi bcbottle! I agree with you that some of his lines are shocking. I wonder how he got this courage to write those line in that time? And what people of 19th century thought when they read his lines? Was he ever in trouble because of his writings?

  2. Hahaha, great blog–I can see you now with a bite of caviar in your mouth, about to wash it down with a perfectly aged wine then gasping in the audacity of Whitman. When I was reading Woman Waits, I too was taken aback. Mainly because not only is it graphic sexually with his mate(s), but he mentions how his sperm is going to create able-bodied babies and how they will “interpenetrate” with others.

    I grew up in a very open home, where I cultivated a very non-prudish outlook, HOWEVER–EW. There are so many other things, so many other poetic, beautiful things to write about than your children having sex, especially since you just described their conception. I think that may also have been a big drawback to Whitman’s open and unabashed “vulgarity” of the time. Yet, I’m glad he did…we’re all human, you know. :)

  3. Hi, I’m taking the Whitman course at City Tech in New York. You’re right, Whitman’s work most definitely has shock value especially considering when it was written, but it never fails to impress me how Whitman manages to make almost everything in his poems fluidic.

  4. I agree that Whitman certainly did “wake people up” with his poetic language when describing sex. I feel that Whitman’s letter to Emerson describes his purpose in approaching sexual topics so openly when he states, “I say that the body of a man or woman, the main matter is so far quiet unexpressed in poems; but that the body is to be expressed, and sex is” (1359). So, I feel that you are correct when you argue, “Had he used softer language, more veiled descriptions, his writing would never have had the effect that it did.” Whitman wrote with purpose, he wanted people to take action. In this specific case I guess Whitman wanted reform in the literary world and thought sexual descriptions and imagery should not be filtered from the public.

  5. Brendon,

    I can’t tell you how much I agree with your post. I have so many places in “Song of Myself” where I could help but underline a phrase with the word “ew.” But the more I think about it, I couldn’t imagine Whitman and his philosophies without lines like that. I know we were talking about Whitman celebrating the body, and I think that one couldn’t have a complete worship if one didn’t celebrate everything about the body, even the parts we consider taboo, or disgusting. Also, I completely agree with you on your latter point. Waking people up needed to start somewhere, and I imagine the public was thronged with progressive papers about women’s rights or abolition. It was best to start with a place that would shock, or at least make people pay attention and want to read more, whether they wanted to ravish Whitman or not (and I’m pretty sure there were–wasn’t there a part in is biography where he got a letter from someone wanting to have his children? Totally weird.)

  6. Brendon, I was doing a lot of thinking about the way Whitman presents sex and sexuality too. His blatant and explicit language definitely has the ability to shock and “scandalize” readers. I think you are right that Whitman partially writes this way in order to get readers to pay attention (even if negatively at first), though I was also thinking that perhaps the attention he pays to sex can be another way in which he links religion, the human body, and writing together.

    Now, bear with me on this. I feel that Whitman’s main attempt in Leaves of Grass is to promote unity and action in the American people. As sex is the most literal and physical way in which two people can be unified, it makes sense that he would focus on sexuality throughout the text to encourage this end. And, the more raw the language and the more intense the act, the stronger the message is conveyed. In “I Am He that Aches with Love,” Whitman says, “Does the earth gravitate? Does not all matter, aching, attract / all matter? / So the body of me to all I meet or know” (265). The speaker aches with love, with sexual desire, so much so that he seems to desire a sexual encounter with everyone and everything. Now, this is not to make Whitman sound like a creepy, over-sexed old man, but only to say that he desires to be as intimate with each and every piece of creation as two people are when they are having sex. Therefore, his surprising and sometimes graphic language makes perfect sense as he is encouraging individuals to view the world and each person in it with the same animal desire that he or she would view a naked lover.

  7. A thought-provoking Whitmanic self-examination, Brendon, and, even as un-EWW prone as I may be, the graphic sexual imagery in “A Woman Waits for Me” and elsewhere does give me pause. But the thread here hasn’t yet directly addressed the *form* by which Whitman presents these images. For me, they’re always mediated by other images offered in rapid succession, ones that often switch from the physical to the metaphysical or to the *differently* physical. We shift from “the seminal milk” (258) to “All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions…” (258). Therefore, unlike, say, pornography, which usually has graphic imagery accrue to excessive overtly sexual ends, Whitman’s poetry always deflects this process and keeps it–for me–from entering into the realm of the truly offensive.
    P.S. Yours is the first allusion to a dropped monocle I’ve read today.

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