Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman's Metro-Poetic Lettrism: The Mannahatta Skyline as Sentence, Syntax, and Spell

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Whitman's Metro-Poetic Lettrism: The Mannahatta Skyline as Sentence, Syntax, and Spell

Article excerpt

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,

Whereupon, lo! Up sprang the aboriginal name!

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,

Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,

with tall and wonderful spires....



In his 1860 poem "Mannahatta," Walt Whitman hints at just how microscopic our academic practice of close reading could eventually become. Whitman's poem reads its own title word's letterscape as a skyline, with its vowels compared to saliva-storing "water-bays" and its consonants compared to ascending "spires." The poet finds meaning burrowed inside a borough's name, but also scrolled out along the surface of its spelling. This paper is a series of aphoristic riffs following his own example off the rooftops of its most extreme implications, treating this fleeting and oblique reference as a kind of high-rise Rosetta Stone or a runic cipher into Whitman's philological concerns.

Whitman, unlike thinkers from Plato to Saussure, believed in a sensual correspondence not only between objects and their names, but also between words and their component letters. The Native American word "Mannahatta" treated like a skyline is a case of signifier-become-signified, characters-become-content, and a horizon-made-hieroglyphic, proof indeed that "These States shall stand rooted in the ground in names."2 David Carr refers to the Manhattan skyline and its hourglass undulation as a "sexy colossus in Reubenesque recline,"3 but Whitman sees the pre-colossal 1860 skyline as a spelling primer and a conjurer's spell at once. While my reference is anachronistic, "Alphabet City" here is not a specific Lower East Side enclave but, for Whitman, the elongated entirety of Manhattan itself.

Clearly, Whitman's background as a printer's apprentice and a journeyman carpenter gives him a mechanical and architectural feeling for the humanly made shapes of characters and words. Whitman (who blurred between subject and object by writing his own nameless reviews for Leaves of Grass) is a word-carpenter and a self-made fetish constructed out of words at once. In "Song of the Broad-Axe," one of his odes-to-tools, he uses the word "preparatory" to describe the "jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising"4 of a building, just as his assembling-together of letters on a compositor's stick was preparatory to the laying-down of words on a page, a process blueprinted by Whitman's handwritten manuscripts. By implication, the crossbars, ascenders, and serifs of letters are the beam, studs, tenons, and mortises of our words, and considering his abundant references to house-making tools (and the ways that exclamation points often cluster around those tool-references), Whitman's mere pen seems often to envy the majestic blows of hammers and chisels and mallets.


"Mannahatta" imagines a word made out of iron, rivets, and cement, but the letters making up the words "Leaves of Grass" on that book's first cover were entwined in vines, buds, and ivy-tendrils, in a biomorphic ensemble that announced its main vegetable motif, a topos that is rooted in a complex of Romance-language puns. The French word for book (livre) indeed derives (linguistically and organically) from a tree's living portion (its liber). In one anthropological model, the initial letters stamped on clay tablets were symbolic of grasses like wheat, barley and related mercantile produce-"grass" was among our earliest pictograms. Whitman is tapping into an organicist tradition here but also serving (by focusing on the architectonics of the alphabet) as a precursor to a more meta-discursive tradition to come, and hence serving as an inter-generational pivot and joist.

In Thoreau's "sandbank" scene from Walden, letters and words emerge in the shapes formed by the thawing clay of a railroad embankment, as items of organic telos, but Whitman sees letters and words as humanly formed constructions, both arbitrarily iconic and yet elementally essential at once. …

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