and... since i haven't had anything important to do since... december... i took a few minutes to type it up. it's about campbell's favorite poem, "song of myself", which some of you will remember from pre-1865 american lit.
yup. and i see you yawning. so here's the article.
What’s a loafer to do?
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grases.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
(Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”)
In my formative years, I became aware that, though my parents loved me deeply, they thought I was “lazy.” I had no “ambition.” I “wasted” time. I didn’t do things that were “productive.” I remember having a chart with a list of my chores posted in the kitchen. After each chore was a day of the week, and I was to paste a gold star by each chore under each day I completed it. The chart was usually blank. I did well in school, but was no slave to homework, and though I was actually a Boy Scout for several years, I never rose above the rank of First Class – to go further would have meant accumulating merit badges, at which I was no more successful than accumulating those gold stars for chores. The scoutmaster didn’t think I was properly “motivated.”
Then, in my junior year in high school, I read the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In the fourth line my eyes were snagged by that word “loafe.” It was my word, misspelling and all.
It was a poem about a man who was lazy and felt good about it. Though he claims to have had parents, they apparently couldn’t prevent him from wasting his time and then boasting about it. At 16, I was being asked what I wanted to “do with my life.” Yet here was a man of 37 who was just beginning. I knew this poem spoke for me.
“Song of Myself” is a long poem for a lazy person to read, but I read it, all 1346 lines of it. And I must confess I understood very little of it. Though I was in the flood tide of adolescence, I even missed most of the parts about sex, Whitman’s language was so metaphorical (“love root,” “libidinous prongs”). But for me then it was a poem about “loafing,” daydreaming, letting you mind go where it wants to, and it affirmed the worth of a person who did so.
In my senior year of high school, we had a substitute teacher for English on the day we were to have read Whitman’s poem. As with most substitute teachers in those days, her task was to kill 50 minutes, so she had us read “Song of Myself” aloud, each person reading one of its 52 stanzas. This private poem between me and Walt Whitman suddenly spoke with many voices. I remember the blushing girl who had to read: “Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude…?” And the whole class laughed at lines like: “The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer.” “Myself” had many selves.
When I reached 37, Whitman’s age for beginning, I recognized some of the anxiety in his voice. “Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?/I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.” These lines had a hollow ring. Death is the great enemy of loafing. To loaf properly, you must believe you are immortal, that nothing matters. At 37, life seems less limitless than at 16.
So what can an old loafer do? Become a teacher, as Whitman did toward the end of his poem. And though the Vice-President for Academics will not permit me to “lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” I can still follow Whitman’s poem. “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher… I teach straying from me…”
I have lived with this poem now for 30 years. While there are many other poems I enjoy, none strikes as deep a chord as does “Song of Myself."
- Prof. Robert Campbell 1993