by Mary Gunderson
I sat outside, surrounded by flowers and the rise of the sun. In my lap, Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ stared boldly in my eyes and challenged me to read. Fear hung quiet on my tongue as I waited for another second to pass by. It was the third time I had gone through the first poem. Frustration boiled as I felt I had completely wronged the poem in speaking. While another second passed, I wondered how my voice could not seem to capture Walt Whitman’s own voice. The words of each verse made no sense, and I could not feel the strength of each line. Suddenly, the second caught me and I stepped into reading the poem through again. This time I made an effort to be still and let my tongue wrap around the words as much as it could. There in those flowing seconds, like each wave touching the shore, I found myself with this voice, Walt Whitman’s and mine.
What captured me the most about Walt Whitman’s poetry was after the fourth time of reading each poem I felt completely within them. ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ was the only poem that hit me the first moment I started speaking. Immediately, I went into breaking down why the voice of ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ was easily heard in my ear more than the others.
Not only poetic structure, but even concern of how one may feel within the poem, played an incredible role in how ones voice might be heard. In ‘Song of Myself’ sections 1, 5, and 52, it was like the whole earth speaking. No longer was it one voice, but many. It would seem now reflecting upon it, that I had a problem connecting and understanding the many voices within ‘Song of Myself’. It was only when I found my own voice, was I able to take part with the many. It was interesting in finding the uniqueness with ‘When I Heard at the Close of the Day’. I particularly like this one because it would be as if I was speaking out loud to myself as each thought came into being. This voice knows it is only for itself, but does not care if others hear. ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ had the strongest voice for me’for it is one that desired most to speak and be heard. Not necessarily to a crowd, but to one who was most important and loved. To this voice, I felt my own completely within it and my heart beating sadly at each word.
Arising through reading Walt Whitman was the thought of how I had also responded to Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Were there similar feelings or thoughts? Did their writings cause the same result? The answer would be no. Because of their differences in structure, they would bring out a diverse voice. With Emily Dickinson though, the voice was not what mattered to me or I felt to her’but the challenge of style. With Walt Whitman the rise and fall of voice and how the voice was to be shared seemed so critical. Only when one becomes aware of the voice are they able to hear the verses. The voice of the earth, the voice of one to itself, and the voice to another are three differences that Walt Whitman is able to capture and cause to be his own voice.
I feel no longer the fear of ruining Walt Whitman’s poems with my voice. Instead I feel Walt Whitman asking of me, with this voice, mine entangled with the drawing out of his, to allow him to be heard again by the side of flowers and the rise of the sun.