Reading the 15,000-word, 52-section "Song of Myself" is like climbing Mount Everest: best done with an experienced guide. The poem is a spiritual journey, exploring ecstasy, evil, God, nature, worship, love, birth, death, and the creation of American culture. Come along; I've never lost anybody yet. (PT, HG1, HG2)
"Song of Myself" is an important poem, one of the foundations of American literature. It is also a challenging poem: 15,000 words divided into 52 sections. People are often familiar with many specific lines of the poem, from the "barbaric yawp" to "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)." Few, though have read the whole thing and experienced the richness of those lines--and so many others--in their context. My objective for the week is, first, simply to help people feel up to the challenge of reading a work of this kind, to offer a space for the reading and an assurance from someone who has been through the poem before--many times--that it can be done, that the poem is intelligible, coherent, meaningful, faithful, and lovely.
More deeply, I hope that through reading in a spirit of worship people may see some of what I see in this poem: the value of Whitman’s struggle to reconcile the degrading and the evil with the goodness of creation, the beauty of his expressions of faith in God, the power of his portrait of ecstatic mystical union. I hope that the poem will call to people’s own struggles, their own faith, their own answers. The whole poem has a shape like the inward journey a worshipper might take in Quaker meeting, but the influences reach beyond Quakerism to include the Christian Bible, Eastern religious texts, Transcendentalism, history, the American colonial expansion into the west, the creation of a unique American identity and culture, geology, paleontology, astronomy. From these influences and themes each group I read it with finds its own emphasis; one year we might tease out a great many of the Biblical allusions, while another year members' knowledge of the American history of the period may enrich our conversation. Every group shows me something in the poem I haven't seen before.
This year's gathering theme, "At the Growing Edges of Our Faith," is about perfect for this poem, which is about a growing nation, and about a journey of emerging faith, and the challenges along that journey.
If you have taken this workshop before, by all means feel free to join us for all or part of the week. The only thing better than reading "Song of Myself" the first time is reading it the second time.
We'll be reading Galway Kinnell's edition of the poem, available in his book Essential Whitman. The book should be available at the Gathering Store. There is no need to read the poem before arriving at the Gathering, though you may if you wish. If you decide to try it, I will give you the same advice my American Literature prof did: start reading, keep reading, and don't think too much. We will have a lovely time in Greeley.
About the leader :
I have led this workshop four times, three times at gatherings and once at Red Cedar monthly meeting. I've also led a short workshop on Walt Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier at Red Cedar. In addition, I've led book groups on books about Africa and other topics.