Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Song of Herself:
When I began this project, I felt like I knew nothing at all about Walt Whitman, despite having encountered his poems multiple times in school. How did I not know that Whitman lived, breathed, and eventually died just forty-five minutes from my hometown? Perhaps at one time I knew why the bridge from Camden to Philadelphia is named after him, or I could recall a line or two of one of his poems, but the information seemed to be lost in the depths of my mind.
Therefore, my initial goal when attending this workshop was to become more familiar with the life and works of Walt Whitman. I was ultimately successful in relearning the things about Whitman that I had quite clearly forgotten, as well as learning something new. But through my pursuit for knowledge about Whitman, I somehow unearthed and discovered more about how I viewed myself. And so I created a self portrait, drawing inspiration from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” to reflect on my self-image and personal journey.
So, in order to record my image with pencil and paper, I first had to examine my outward appearance in a way that I had not done since I was in high school. At that time, it was much easier to be spending hours in front of a mirror; I knew it was my last semester at that school and I was set to start college in just a few short months. My face was rounder, my smile was larger, and even though I wore an unremarkable black sweatshirt I seemed to be more confident than ever before. As I began the process of creating my new self portrait, however, I quickly realized that I had somehow morphed into the complete opposite of what I had portrayed before. When I peered at myself through the mirror, I was met with tired eyes and a blank expression, not the smile I had known before. And although I had intentionally put on my favorite outfit, I did not appear as confident as I thought I felt. How was it that I had accomplished so many things, but my image seemed to be regressing into a more negative state?
By presenting myself with questions about my outer appearance, I referred back to both Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and the presentations I had taken part in during the workshop. I was immediately struck by the lines, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes)” (51). I always considered high school to be some of the worst years of my life, yet my portrait from that time showed someone carefree and full of hope. Now I am in college and have experienced incredible things, but I am faced with an anxious vision in front of me. Having grappled with these ideas, I eventually realized that I could be both hopeful and anxious, carefree and careful, because I also contain the multitudes that Whitman mentioned. And while I am marked by the many hardships that I have encountered in the last four years, it is true that I have so many things to look forward to. I then found motivation in the lines, “Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams / Now I wash the gum from your eyes / You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life” (46). Whitman’s words provided me with a new perspective. Although the project was not the happy, inspiring portrait I had planned to draw, it was still a great learning experience and something I wanted to share with others. Ultimately, I made the decision to make the self portrait a reflection of what my current situation was when I created it. It is riddled with tiredness and anxiety, but it is an accurate portrayal of my “perpetual journey” (46).
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself” Leaves of Grass, 1892. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022.
Contributor Bio: Eva Leaverton