My favorite part of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is where he promises the reader the origin of all poems and that you’ll no longer take things at second hand. “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” He’s not going to impart information so much as show us a new way of looking at the world, and then turn us loose to look for ourselves.
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
This is one of my favorite passages from Whitman’s poetry. Some years ago I even copied it out into a notebook, even though I have two editions of Leaves of Grass on my bookshelf.
I like it that Whitman, a writer, is dismissive of the “spectres in books.” Though he could be pretty full of himself (as the poem’s title indicates), he didn’t want his readers to “look through my eyes either.” He wanted his poetry to be a transformative experience, something that gave his readers the tools to the see the world anew, and to see it for themselves directly, unfiltered by experts or some canon of acceptable ideas.