Robertson closes Close Readings with Whitman

After a fall semester of thought-provoking Close Readings, the Department of English closed with a reading of one of New Jersey’s beloved poets. The event, which took place on Oct. 30, looked at two sections from poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a work from his book, “Leaves of Grass.”

The reading and lecture were presented by Michael Robertson, professor of English, whose mellow voice and enthusiasm for the work made the experience a notable one.

Robertson opened by describing connections to earlier Close Readings from the semester, including English professor Bernard Bearer’s reading on William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and English professor Nagesh Rao’s interpretation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort.”

Robertson quoted Rao, who said, “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel, this is not a pleasant confession.”

Robertson discussed Whitman’s writing style and structure in “Song of Myself.”

“This extraordinary poem has inspired multitudes of critical interpretations, such as a democratic epic, a psychological monologue and a praise song of the romantic self,” Robertson said. “But I want to explore the poem . as a foundational epic of a liberal, individualistic, post-Christian spirituality.”

He analyzed the religious nature of the first section and the sexuality inherent in the fifth section, noting first-time readers may wonder, “Is this a religious poem, or a sex poem?”

He brought up other questions frequently asked of the fifth section, like whether the sex described is metaphorical or real, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual and what sexual act is actually being depicted.

“My firm answer to all of these questions is, ‘yes,'” Robertson said, prompting laughter.

The audience enjoyed sandwiches and drinks as Robertson read his chosen sections of the work aloud. The entire work contains 52 sections – about 1,400 lines. The original edition of “Leaves of Grass,” published in 1855, contained 12 poems, but expanded to 324 poems by the final edition.

This gives Whitman fans plenty of material to analyze, but might scare off casual readers encountering him for the first time.

Robertson, whose book “Worshipping Walt” further explores Whitman as a religious teacher as well as a poet, acknowledged that people reading Whitman for the first time might not take a liking to him from the beginning.

“(Whitman) went over my head in college,” Robertson said. “He’s a difficult poet. You have to hit him at the right time.”

David Blake, associate professor of English and organizer of the event, echoed this statement.

“(His work) doesn’t sound like poetry. People aren’t sure how to handle that. And many are taken aback by his egotism,” he said.

Blake, who has also published critical works about Whitman’s poems, said of Robertson, “He did a tremendous job. He brings so much nuance and passion, a rare combination.”

“Professor Robertson was very knowledgeable,” Keri Rovito, freshman deaf education/English major, said. She added, “I enjoyed listening to him, because he was eloquent and made the work more accessible to the audience.”