I celebrate myself and sing myself

February 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow, we will be covering the first 25 sections of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As I reread those sections tonight to lesson plan, I remembered a line that has never failed to evoke a tear from my eye, a prickle in my nose.

from Section 13

“My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.

I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.”

The poet (the poet who is himself and herself and all of us all together) describes traipsing through the country, disturbing the country and the animals within it. He (I’m choosing a pronoun here) imagines those disturbed animals flying away, passing judgment on him (the bay mare in particular), but he does not (cannot?) pass judgment on them.

I love the line I emphasized here. This is the line that has always grabbed my heart and given a good tug. Here, the poet promises (and admonishes those who do not follow this advice) not to pass judgment on the tortoise when she is not a bird and full of fluttering colors. He goes so far as to say that he will not call her “unworthy.” “Unworthy” is such a loaded word, full of the most painful implications. “Unworthy” of what? Consideration? Life? A line in a poem? Being seen? Being appreciated? Being loved?

I am that (un)worthy tortoise. I see myself as that tortoise. I spend too much time telling myself that I am not worthy because I am not something else. (Better, thinner, stronger, prettier, kinder, smarter, funnier, more loving.) But what we are asked to do here is two-fold. First and most obviously, we should not pass judgment on something because it is not something else. (“Damn you, chair, I hate you because you are not a horse!” Ridiculous, yes?) The second is that we should not pass judgment on ourselves or each other because we are not something else. If we are tortoises, we will never be hares. If we are hares, we will never be dragons. If we are dragons, we will never be the sky. At the end of it all, we had better love and let love (or live, depending on your mood, of course), because otherwise we sure have wasted a precious lot of time.

So, here’s a promise, to Amanda from Amanda: I will not call you unworthy because you are not something else.

Whitman also reminds us in Section 20:

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.”

Isn’t it enough to just exist? It shines all new meaning on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), doesn’t it? Let us all alone to think and exist, and let us all alone to be content in that existence.

Also, before I go, I found an audio recording of Lucille Clifton reading Section 3 online, and I plan to share it with my students tomorrow morning. For those of you who might be intrigued by the prospect of this reading (and believe me, you really ought to be), then please follow the link, press play, and read along (Section 3 is reproduced on the website): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20277.

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§ 10 Responses to I celebrate myself and sing myself

  • Lauren says:

    Thanks for posting this blog entry πŸ™‚ It’s a good reminder!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! πŸ™‚ I’ve always found “Song of Myself” to be just the right thing for when I need a reminder to just go with it. πŸ™‚

  • Tim says:

    It’s not a line from Whitman, but the line about the tortoise reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

    You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.

    I love these reminders of the inherent worth that exists simply in being who and what we are.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Love that! I have an inspirational calendar that has that quote featured for one of the months. (I got the calendar as my dissertation-writing calendar.) It’s a difficult message to bear in mind on our worst days, but absolutely one that is necessary.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Oh my goodness! I think I was feeling like the unworthy tortoise yesterday. Thanks for the uplifting post!

  • petthedog says:

    Bene amica!! Molto bella!! My go to poem is Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”

    ————-“For I have learned
    To look on nature, not as in the hour
    Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
    The still, sad music of humanity,
    Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
    To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things.”

  • I love your blog, Amanda, and missed it while I was away. Thanks for a taste of Whitman this evening. I so need to accept my tortoise self, for I am often slow and plodding and irritated by these very tortoise facts. Thanks for the reminder! Hope your week is going well!

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