Let the Asiatic, the African, the European, the American, and the Australian, go armed against the murderous stealthiness of each other! Let them sleep armed! Let none believe in good will!Walt Whitman, "Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness," 1856
Originally published as "poem of the propositions of Nakedness" in 1856, then without a title in 1860, the poem that we know as "Respondez" only appeared as such in the 1867 and 1871-72 Leaves of Grass. If, as Sam Abrams claims, "Respondez" is "a poem widely regarded as the most important in the entire Whitman corpus" then it occupies a strangely marginal position in that corpus (32).1 Easily overlooked because of its exclusion from the first and final editions, the poem is better known to a few critics of Whitman than it is to a general readership.2 It is probably best known to other poets—and is, ironically, more often printed in anthologies and selections than "complete" editions of Leaves of Grass.3
"Respondez" clearly stands out, although theories of why are not forthcoming. Louis Zukofsky famously wrote that it was "Whitman's greatest poem," quoting the work in its entirety but without further comment at the end of Prepositions+ (218-21).4 Likewise in 1947 William Carlos Williams claimed it as exemplary of "a new formal necessity touching all verse" (qtd. in Abrams 32), going on to read twenty-five lines of the poem also without further comment. In not commenting, Zukofsky and Williams alert us to its slipperiness, for quoting "Respondez" is far easier than offering an interpretation or capturing it within a general framework. [End Page 1]
Nonetheless the poem as a whole merits careful attention, if only because here we have a different Whitman from the familiar one: a Whitman who is not the national poet of America, but rather a prophet of a queer and anarchic global modernity. By looking closely at the form, specifically Whitman's use of the stylistically anaphoric "Let," this essay reveals instability at the heart of the problem of interpreting "Respondez." As Marshall McLuhan seemed to recognize in his resetting of Whitman's lines (Fig.1), the role of this small word is much larger than one might think. Grammatically, "let" can function as a first or third person imperative auxillary, but it can also function as an optative subjunctive, expressing desire rather than command.5 This grammatical instability casts light on the complex nature of the national, or rather international political engagement of "Respondez," and on the changing relation of Whitman's poetry to global capitalism from 1856 to 1892.
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Let us go back to the beginning however, and start with the original title: "Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness." Ostensibly this title refers to a line that appears three pages later: "Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in public, naked, monthly, at the peril of our lives! Let our bodies be freely handled and examined by whoever chooses!" (319). Since there is so little nudity elsewhere in the poem, however, we assume that the title and this line are not literal "Propositions of Nakedness," but are supposed to be read metaphorically. That is, Whitman's urging of nudity is emblematic of a more general tendency in many of the other lines—a tendency which might aptly be described as the stripping of social norms. [End Page 2]
Before we follow this interpretation further, it is worth asking, to what extent is this spoken as a poem, and to what extent as a proposition? Why did Whitman awkwardly duplicate the of-phrase in his title: "Poems of the Propositions of . . ."?6 And why is nakedness privileged? The first part of this essay demonstrates how our reading of these lines can change according to how we interpret both the term "proposition" and the "Let." Whitman engages a number of possible definitions of each, and a brief survey of these provides a helpful entry into the complexity of the poem...