“Decorous Whitman”

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Colloquium Report, by Ray Horton

Theo Davis, Associate Professor of English, Northeastern University

Friday, March 7, 2014

Walt Whitman’s poetry is regularly interpreted and taught as the enigmatic acclamation of American democracy. His verse, as Davis explained, is typically read as the poetic formalization of democratic representation: it equates representation in a poem to the “one vote” of universal suffrage, promotes equal representation in the public sphere, and lauds a fundamental egalitarianism that runs counter to all modes of hierarchical distinction. Countering this trend in Whitman scholarship, Davis contended that those who come to Whitman’s poetry asking about the homology between poetic and democratic representation are asking the wrong questions. Instead, she argued, Whitman’s work is rooted in a contrarian commitment to ornamentation and adornment.

To demonstrate how “the material and decorative nature” of language in Whitman’s poetry foregrounds the “highly wrought” quality of ornamentation as an “additive conferral,” Davis gave the example of Whitman’s oft-cited long, drawn-out lines—those lines which, containing multitudes, appear to go on without end as they list image after image, person after person. According to Davis, this “pile-up of images” is not an effort to flatten or democratize, but to emphasize ornament, increase, and the decorous, mannerly placement of objects. By understanding how Whitman’s verse privileges the “graceful addition” of mannerly bearing, the “heaping up of praise” on the poet himself, and the “decorative offering” of poetry that carries an implicit sense of imbalance and inequality, we come to grasp Whitman’s notion of democracy itself. For Whitman, democracy does not operate under the idealism of universal egalitarianism, as his work is so often taught, but in the real-world maintenance of a society wherein inequality and imbalance remain omnipresent.

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