“Whoever you are holding me now in hand…I give you fair warning before you attempt me further / I am not what you supposed, but far different.”
In his poem “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand”, Walt Whitman is inviting the reader (c’est moi!) to engage in his poem freely, as an individual; to make their own judgments on the ideas that the text proposes, not on preconceived notions. He is insisting that we must not think exactly as he does but draw our own conclusion; to understand on our own terms. According to Whitman:
“Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read”.
In “Whoever You Are”, Whitman also meets you where you are. But who is this you that Whitman speaks to?
Whitman sees his readers as an active audience. Many of his poems were read by Whitman in public lectures before they were even published. This is one reason we find the second person “you” so often in his verse: Whitman is the speaker; we are the audience. Whitman was therefore able to connect with his readers as no other poet.
Whitman gives a clear warning, however, that the way is uncertain. By joining him in this verse, we might become connected, we might become a candidate for his affection. Is the uncertainty worth the risk? “Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting” [Alas, a new word for my lexicon: Novitiate (n.): the period or state of being a novice; an abecedarian=one learning the rudiments of something. What a fun word- first used in 1518.] Whitman assumes that the novitiate is a knowledgeable reader and therefore has the ability to synthesize unique thoughts in connecting to his poem and to himself. This creates a unique bond between poet and reader; an elevated level of understanding which remains fundamentally a conversation. This idea has challenged me to view poetry differently. I am not an outsider reading the thoughts of a poet as I have in the past. I am now in conversation with the poet! How cool.
What is this new adventure that Whitman is asking us to take with him? Our reading of the works of Whitman for the first time? Our new relationship with him as writer/reader? Is it possible to read poetry or literature of any kind and not become involved emotionally with the author? It is a risk I am willing to take; therefore, let us proceed.
In the third stanza of “Whoever You Are Holding”, Whitman gives admonition “to put me down and depart on your way”. Although Whitman never sought “followers”, his desire to find a committed reader seems unequivocal here as he lies forgotten in “any roof’d room of a house” or forgotten on the dusty shelves of a library “dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead”. As I read these lines, I look at my own library of “forgotten books” which have brought me great delight over the years. This past year, I have been revisiting many of my favorite books to become reacquainted and reconnected. Now I will read them with a new purpose!
“But these leaves conning you…will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you.” The leaves here I believe are referring to the pages of his books, filled with his psalmic style of poetry. This was very true in my case as I was first drawn to the poetry of Walt Whitman through his haunting ode’s to Abraham Lincoln in “When Lilacs Last “and “O Captain, My Captain”. In ‘O Captain”, Whitman’s lines are unrhymed and indented in succession as a visual impression in typography signifying a falling mood as Lincoln lies dying. He uses iambic meter combined in tetrameter to signify this heavy tone:
“But O heart! heart! heart! as Lincoln’s heartbeat stops and he has “Fallen cold and dead”.
In addition, in these historical and geographical prose and biographical essays, I soon discovered an affinity to his rich mixture of words, colloquialisms, and Americanisms:
“My own Manhattan with spires, and sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships,/ The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri…Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines./…Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.”
A second reason I am drawn to Whitman’s poems are his use of cataloguing syntactic parallelism and rhetorical repetition; a rhythm of two to four coordinate clauses as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. As a Grammarian, I appreciate his word formations and verbal style–the processes of suffixation of -ee and -er by converting verbs into nouns; the parallelism, repetition, and alliteration found in “Crossing”:
“I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,/Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,/Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,/ Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south…”.
Alas! The final and most recent way that I am drawn to Whitman’s poetry can be summed up in the first stanza of “Whoever You Are Holding Now in Hand”: “I am not what you supposed, but far different.” I love this. It takes the onus off of my shoulders. I will stop supposing; I can now approach poetry, or any literature for that matter, as an active participant with no pre-suppositions.
Whitman ends his verse by requesting to be released by the reader: “For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,/ Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,/…For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit,…Therefore release me and depart on your way. I will depart, however, as warned, I am forever connected!
Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand
BY WALT WHITMAN
Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?
The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard,
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon’d,
Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go your hand from my shoulders,
Put me down and depart on your way.
Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,
Or back of a rock in the open air,
(For in any roof’d room of a house I emerge not, nor in company,
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,)
But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any person for miles around approach unawares,
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or some quiet island,
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.
But these leaves conning you con at peril,
For these leaves and me you will not understand,
They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me,
Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few) prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps more,
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at;
Therefore release me and depart on your way.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)