De-capitalizing the “I”: Worlds both Inner and Shared in the Whitmanian Lyric

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Issue Date
2016-04-23
Authors
Israel, Shayna S.
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Abstract
When critics and scholars attempt to define the lyric poem as entirely individual—a prison song overheard—or social—a “privileging of the political over the private spheres” (Dubrow 120)—one risks overlooking the nuanced way in which the lyric poem behaves, overlooking the novel interaction between first-person declaratives, the exchange of “I’s: between the poet and his audience. What would it be to consider the genre of lyric a dream world of exchange, an economy of “I’s”? Categories are crucial in assisting scholars and readers make sense of what they read. The renewed interest in Greek poetry by the Romans, for example, was in part due to the effect familiarization with conventional features has on shifting sensibility and expectation (Johnson 97). However, both poetry and poets by the nature of the/their work defy mimetic interpretation and are often hard to place within rigid categories. Thus, classification in poetry is only as useful as it is malleable. For, one of the great lyric bards of the modern era, Walt Whitman utilizes first-person declaratives as well as narrative and epic elements in a single poem—namely, A Passage to India. What is consistent in the Whitmanian lyric is not the sublimation of his social world for the individual but how he uses first-person pronouns to construct a social world in which exile perspectives can be traded—an “I” for an “I”—in a movement toward an ideal, fictional, collective body—in a movement toward transcendence.
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