Uncle Walt, No Help

Maybe I should have turned to Mark Twain. I reread Song of Myself last night and it was no comfort. Walt’s ability to find value in everyone is moving and his desire to embrace everything–good and bad–is a challenge in the best way.

But this time through I felt troubled by his insistence that everything that was happening to anyone was happening to him. I wonder about the impulse to believe that one can know everything there is to know, that one can appreciate the plight of someone else without experiencing it. I go back and forth on this. I think empathy is important. I think imagining ourselves in others’ situations is important. I also do think we all would be better off if we watched each other as if we all have value and listened the same.

But I still come away from it feeling like the 29th bather part of the poem is the honest critique of the poem’s approach. You can observe. You can imagine yourself splashing in the water. You can even feel connected to the other bathers. But what connection do they have to you?

A good poem changes meaning as you change. Song of Myself is still one of my very favorite poems. I remember reading it for the first time in college and being blown away by it. I didn’t even know a poem like that was possible. I didn’t know something “that old” could be so interesting and invigorating. I remember stanza upon stanza just breaking my brain and I loved talking about it.

I loved reading it again in grad school, with a professor who would spend the whole class discussing one word choice, the implications of that particular word, as if we could reach transcendence by thinking hard enough, by cracking the poem open.

And I survived my first lonely months in Nashville by reading it out loud to myself. I’ve loved it every time I’ve reread it over the years.

This time, though, I realized what a profoundly lonesome poem it is. Which, I suppose, is an insight for our troubled times.

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