Self Psychology Page 

Poets to Come:
Walt Whitman, Self Psychology
the Readers of the Future


Donald S. Palladino, Jr.



Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood native, athletic, continental,
greater than before known,
Arouse! For you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who sauntering along without fully stopping,
turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

~Walt Whitman


Donald S. Palladino, Jr.                                                                 Copyright ©2000 All rights reserved

This essay examines the poetry of Walt Whitman through the bifocal lens of psychoanalytic self psychology and reader response criticism. Whitman had an intuitive understanding of relational dynamics that Kohut later scientifically explored, and his poetry can be viewed as analogous to these principles. Because Whitman felt he lacked empathic selfobject response in his own lifetime, the bulk of his poetry was written for the sole purpose of eliciting the responsiveness of his future readers. By examining the more erotically explicit poems, the reader is given self psychological clues that explain former selfobject failures; then, the reader is enticed into performing an intricate set of selfobject functions that assist in the restoration of his self. The reader thus serves their part in Whitman’s nuclear program—a program that he hoped would “cease not till death.”


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

This paper is available in MS Word format.


This essay examines the poetry of Walt Whitman through the lens of psychoanalytic self psychology. Whitman had that intuitive understanding of relational dynamics, which Kohut would later scientifically explore under the rubric of self psychology. Whitman’s poetry can be seen as analogous with these principles. This paper is itself an endeavor in “applied” self psychology, and simultaneously attempts to show how Whitman can be read as having applied self psychology to his future readers, his “poets to come.”

Whitman had an intricate purpose behind his lifelong writing of Leaves of Grass. Few poets have such extraordinary hopes for their readers; and I dare say, no other epic poem in history relies on that reader in such an extraordinarily complex way and blatantly exploits his audience for selfobject needs. Whitman’s poetry reveals these needs; and yet, these needs are constantly being contradicted. Because of this, it is difficult to get hold of “the real Whitman.” Therefore, when studying Whitman’s poetry from a self psychological perspective, I found it essential to critically correlate them with his prose writings. Only then, are these contradictions understood and Whitman’s deeper narcissistic needs uncovered.

In his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman tells us that he had “considered long and seriously of [us] before [we] were born....”[1] His greatest hope was to feel “self-balanced for contingencies, / To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.”[2] Whitman hoped that, as self psychological readers, we would help him regain his narcissistic balance. But even more essentially, he wanted us to truly understand—to apprehend the enormous and complicated needs of his nuclear self and its program.[3]

Whitman craved massive acceptance of his poetry; instead, the majority of his poems were inveighed against and reviled. He even said that his book was “worse than a failure.”[4] This is why Whitman had resigned himself to a wistful belief in the future: “…I have not gain’d the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future—anticipations”[5] Whitman considered his book “a candidate for the future”[6] the “value” of which was “to be decided by time.”[7] By projecting his poetry into the future, Whitman believed he could make his failure a success. As he noted, “The prescient poet projects himself centuries ahead and judges performer or performance after the changes of time.”[8] This is analogous to what Kohut said on projection:

The patient projects the defective self so that it will be ready to grow again in the future, to continue to develop from the point in time at which its development had been interrupted. And it is this recognition, deeply understood by the analyst who essentially sees the world through the patient’s eyes while he analyzes him, that best prepares the soil for the developmental move forward that the stunted self of the analysand actively craves.[9]

Whitman projected his poems (and his self) and directed them toward particular idealized targets—the readers of the future. But to accomplish such a task, his writing had to be good enough. Kohut told us what constitutes good writing:

I sincerely believe that good writing should always leave a task yet to be performed. In other words, it should provide the opportunity for active participation via the synthesizing ability of the reader, even at the risk that he might reach conclusions that I, myself had not anticipated.[10]

Both writer and reader have a role to adopt and a function to perform. Whitman firmly believed in the response-ability of the reader: “The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine.”[11] Only when myriads of future readers accepted the demands of his narcissism—willing to do their part—would Whitman achieve the narcissistic balance and self structure he envisioned:

After a long, long course, hundreds of years, denials,

Accumulations, rous’d love and joy and thought,

Hopes, wishes, aspirations, ponderings, victories, myriads of readers,

Coating, compassing, covering—after ages’ and ages’ encrustrations,

Then only may these songs reach fruition.[12]

This fragment illustrates both a self psychological and a poetic understanding of time.

Poetic and Temporal Considerations

            What makes self psychology distinct is that it, more that any other depth psychology, considers the importance of a time/axis continuum in understanding the patient’s self. Kohut said that “self psychology focuses in addition on the in-depth elucidation of the self in its current state and on the elucidation of the impact of its past not only with regard to it present state but also with regard to its future.” By stressing such temporal considerations, the self psychologist has “discovered the despair of the adult in the depth of the child....”[13] Through this despair they understand “that the child whose self is stunted by the selfobject’s failures is, in this depression, mourning an unlived, unfulfilled future.”[14] For Whitman, to be unfulfilled was to live a life in which his nuclear program was not realized and original structures were left defective.

To remedy this, Whitman adopted a metaphysical philosophy of time, a temporal continuity that not only emphasized the future, but one where present judgments were invalid unless the future was also considered: As he tells us, “Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is….he places himself where the future becomes present.””[15] Whitman believed deeply that his selfobject needs would be satisfied only through time, in spheres more gracious than his own. His poems were written according to these temporal principles and were supposed to assure his future acceptance:

Belief I sing—and Preparation;

As Life and Nature are not great with reference to the Present only,

But greater still from what is to come,

Out of that formula for Thee I sing.[16]

But a perspective like the preceding is bought at a price. For Whitman, the future was irrevocably bound up with his death.  But Whitman believed that his poems “prepare for death, yet they are not the finish, but rather the outset, / They bring none to his or her terminus....”[17] If Whitman thought of writing his poems as a kind of preparation, what exactly was he preparing for? I would argue that he was preparing to engage each and every one of his future readers in an intensely complicated self-selfobject relationship; one that he hoped “would cease not till death.”[18]

Death, The Future, The Invisible Faith, Shall All Be Convey’d[19]

For Whitman the man, death would certainly interrupt the development of Whitman’s self as well as the fruition of his songs. But for Whitman the poet, death would not interfere with the fruition of his poems. Death, he believed, was “by far the greatest part of existence and something that Life is at least as much for, as it is for itself.”[20] Kohut wrote that one of the greatest fears of Tragic Man is “premature death, a death which prevents the realization of the aims of his nuclear self (emphasis mine).”[21] But speaking poetically, Whitman would have considered death after a full lifetime still a premature death. He believed his own nuclear program would not be stopped by death and devoted his energy to “earn[ing] for the body and the mind whatever adheres and goes forward and is not dropt by death.”[22]

Both poetic and biographical evidence show that Whitman did not fear death. Kohut said, “the fear of death is actually a fear of losing narcissistic responses....”[23] Whitman was at peace with death;[24] for he knew that “What invigorates life [selfobject responses] invigorates death,” as well.[25] Kohut noted that “if an individual succeeds in realizing the aims of his nuclear self, he can die without regret: he has achieved the fulfillment of the tragic hero....”[26] But Whitman did not feel he succeeded in his own lifetime. Therefore, as long as there was this belief in readers of the future, he would continue to receive responses and would not fear death. His readers would assure this and his nuclear program would be continued. But for this to happen, his poems were not just to be read, but to be read empathically. Kohut wrote that it is empathy that “protects a child from death, and insures his psychological and physical survival.”[27] Empathy would allow Whitman to seek “constant restoration and vitality....”[28] The empathic reader would continually restore him from the dead.

Using Our Empathic Instrument

When Whitman said that he expected the “main things” from us, what precisely did he mean? Kohut wrote that, as self psychologists, empathy is our “main tool.”[29] Whitman expects us to use our empathic instrument, to be in-tune with his unrolling needs, to know the song of his self. He hoped the reader would “get the final lilt of song, / ... / To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt—to truly understand....”[30] That “final lilt” of song was his “potential life curve,” the “destiny” of his nuclear self.[31] Understanding, for Whitman, involved diagnosis—a  “complete” and “thorough” knowledge of his self. But it also involved discerning how love, pride and doubt helped or hindered its realization. Whitman wanted the reader to know that loving and proud responses made up a portion of his self. In the depth of his self there were songs of strength: “With music strong I come....”[32] But also down there were doubt and deep-rooted shame that Whitman felt from his self only being accepted in parts.

Grandiosity and Shame: Out of the Dimness Opposite Equals Advance[33]

“See, projected through time, / For me an audience interminable.”[34]

Scholars have noted how Whitman thought of his book in epic terms. Yet the strength of his book’s (and his self’s) greatness is contingent upon the greatness of his audience. In a magnificently grandiose expectation expressed in an open letter to Emerson, but truly intended to his future readers, Whitman chants: “To freedom, to strength, to poems, to personal greatness, it is never permitted to rest, not a generation or part of a generation.”[35] If we take this assertion as an admonition to the readers of his poems, what is Whitman really saying? Overtly, Whitman believes in the need for great, robust and truly American poems; but more deeply, he is here revealing his own narcissistic needs. Whitman is speaking of his freedom, his strength, his poems, and his personal greatness; and it is precisely the kind of grandiosity that hangs on his reader’s response. As he would say later, “O poets to come, I depend on you!”[36]  Whitman expected to have a self-selfobject relationship with his future readers. Yet, as self psychological readers, we know that such a grand expectation is neither unrealistic, nor inordinate. As Kohut noted: “You don’t have to educate the patient to make them [the grandiose tendencies] realistic. What you have to do is educate the patient to allow himself to remain in contact with this old grandiosity.”[37]

Kohut believed this old grandiosity to be the “vital core” and “central source of strength that the patient has at his disposal.”[38] The reader who comes from a self psychological perspective takes such vociferations seriously and responds positively to their strength.[39] Whitman never uses the word grandiosity; but his ideas about “greatness” are consonant with Kohut’s theories of grandiosity. Kohut noted that an early expression of grandiosity “includes what later become perfect beauty, a fine body, great achievement, brightness, moral perfection, a good feeling about oneself.”[40]  Whitman accentuates this assertion and compounds its strength, reminding us that: “We are powerful and tremendous in ourselves, / We are executive in ourselves, we are sufficient in the variety of ourselves, / We are the most beautiful to ourselves and in ourselves....”[41]

Pride is one of the telltale signs that our grandiosity is being properly received.  One feels pride when the self is received in its wholeness, and shame when we sense we are being received in parts. We can then think of shame as disintegrated grandiosity. Kohut has described shame as “negative exhibitionism,”[42] noting that it arises when there “is a disturbance in the smooth presentation of the self to the surroundings; (italics mine)”[43] or more precisely,  “when the expected smooth outflow of normal exhibitionistic libido is in some way interfered with,” shame is the often the result (italics mine).[44] Through his poetry, Whitman endeavored to place himself in an environment in which “every part [was] able, active, receptive without shame or the need of shame....”[45] Regarding shame, Kohut wrote

...if we are in surroundings in which the self is not responded to, in which we are rejected, in which we exhibit our self but are ignored, then little signals of shame will inform us about the event, and we must then decide what to do. What should we do? Should we go to another environment? Should we try a different tack of evoking satisfying responses?[46]

Whitman did indeed take a different tack to alleviate his shame. His method of eliciting more satisfying responses was anything but typical. But the virtues of being a poet allowed him more latitude than most. In this role, Whitman had the power of placement and projection: He placed “his own times, reminiscences, parents, brothers and sisters, associations, employment, politics, so the rest never shame [him] afterward, nor assume to command [him.]”[47] Furthermore, Whitman imagined projecting his shameful responders where they would not be privy to his future exhibitionism. He anticipated presenting himself to “another environment” that would accept all parts of his self. 

To understand this need for future self-presentations to alternative environments, I shall go into some performative words that occur at a pivotal moments during “Song of Myself.” With emphatic self-justification, Whitman shouts, “It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.”[48] What did Whitman mean by such a statement?  To explain is “to make smooth” and in Kohut’s perspective, to free from shame. In certain strategic and precise places in Leaves of Grass, some of Whitman’s poetic utterances were intended to be performative acts; therefore, they were not just poems, but explanations—or attempts to smooth out his shame. He did this by revealing to his readers the most vulnerable parts of his song—the parts alluding to his intricate masturbation practices. As he Whitman tells us:

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,

Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,

And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.[49]

In such bold revelations, Whitman hoped that the reader would understand what it was like when he was unempathically received, before his parts were to be harmoniously blended.[50] If Whitman was empathically received by his former selfobjects, it was mostly to the more tolerable parts of his poetic corpus. But more often than not, his erotically explicit parts were considered reprehensible. This unempathic reception had deleterious self psychological consequences.[51]

As self psychologists, we know that disintegration outcomes appear when a child exhibits his or her grandiosity and is not embraced in their totality. Kohut discovered that when the selfobject does not respond to the total self “single symbols of greatness (the urinary stream, feces, phallus) will take over” in modes of “exhibitionistic  preoccupations….”[52] Furthermore, Kohut noted that “[i]dentification with the soloist, but often also with the solitary or predominant sound of a musical production, may have phallic-exhibitionistic pleasurable implications.”[53] 

With all this being understood, we can therefore understand why Whitman yielded to a “phallic narcissism” in his poems. Through this capitulation, his penis, as Kohut said, would become the “carrier of pride, the major narcissistic investment, a symbol of the self.”[54] As Whitman says: “From that of myself without which I were nothing, / From what I am determin’d to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men, / From my own voice resonant, singing the phallus....”[55] But these poetically phallic capitulations were strategic: They would assist Whitman in the restoration of his narcissism, to shore up his self in the future.

Poised for the Future: Reassessing Masturbation and Erotic Experiences

Produce great Persons, the rest follows.”[56]

Whitman knew restoration of his narcissistic balance would require monumental creativity as well as a prolific corpus. He would have to create poems that not only spoke to an extensive audience, but also had to be capable of eliciting their responsiveness. His poetic voice would have to be temporally extensive and be continually oriented toward them. Poetically, Whitman knew he had to give birth to his future readers. But how did Whitman initiate this? By focusing on his major narcissistic investment—his penis.

Whitman would use the sector of single functioning in a two-fold intricate operation called tallying, which involved masturbating and writing poems.[57] In a paean to the importance of this autoerotic program of creation, Whitman attests: “I swear I begin to see love with sweeter spasm than that which responds love, / It is that which contains itself, which never invites and never refuses.”[58] Through the tropes of masturbation, the reader can understand how Whitman lacked selfobject responses. But how often can we think Whitman to “masturbate”? In a marvelously perverse and hyperbolic trope claiming the numerical figure, Whitman confesses: “Every hour the semen of centuries, and still of centuries.”[59] Whitman said that he bathed “[h]is songs in Sex....” His book was the “offspring of [his] loins.”[60] For Whitman, the procreative response of masturbation and the creative results of writing were inextricably intertwined.[61]

Kohut noted that it “is not healthy drive pressure that leads to endlessly repeated masturbation, but the attempt to substitute pleasurable sensations in parts of the body (erogenous zones) when the joy provided by the exhibition of the total self is unavailable.”[62] But should we understand Whitman’s masturbation as such? Were his autoerotic activities unsuccessful? I would argue that they were not. Instead, his masturbatory acts worked to attain wholeness and would lead (at least in a hoped-for future) to fulfillment and joy. Whitman had high standards for his “father-stuff.”[63] He “expect[ed] perfect men and woman out of [his] love spendings,”[64] Each of those perfect men and woman were possible readers that had the potential to respond and function as mirroring selfobjects.

Masturbation, for Whitman, was also a form of psychometric tool that helped him write his poetry. It not only measured the selfobject as soul, but also tallied the efficacy of that selfobject in relation to his self. Masturbation was a calibrative maneuver that helped correct his vision. Giving up on his mortal vision, Whitman would concentrate on his poetic voice, which was achieved through his penis. As he tells us, “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, / With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.”[65] The worlds of the future would now look at and respond to his awesome voice.

For over 35 years, Whitman created and revised his poetry, writing toward the “eyes” of the future. He wanted to project his poetic words (his ejaculation) further and further into the future, where imagined responses would be forthcoming. Each time his poems were not oriented toward the future, he masturbated. Sometimes the concomitant erotic fantasy was in line with self-realizing tendencies as in “A Woman Waits for Me” where he is able to drain his aching “pent-up rivers” in a manner aligned with his nuclear goals.  He presses “with slow rude muscle,” hoping to “pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States,” and will “dare not withdraw until [he] deposit[s] what so long accumulated within [him].”[66] 

Other times he was not so successful and feels the guilt of masturbation—not guilt over the act itself, but because his masturbation was not beholden to the self-realizing tendencies (that is, he did not consider his future readers). This is precisely his confession in section 28 of “Song of Myself when he is raped by his own hand. The “sentries” who normally guard against the pleasure principle “desert” him leaving him “helpless” to the “red marauder” who deprives him of his “ best as for a purpose....”[67] When the muse (as selfobject) was not available, Whitman is at his most bitter and helpless as in “Respondez!” Because he is unable to masturbate (or write poems) in a way that serves nuclear aims, he cries out in despair: “Let shadows be furnish’d with genitals! / Let substances be deprived of their genitals![68]

In poetic and pragmatic terms, it is neither appropriate nor useful to relegate masturbation as a disintegration outcome. By this criterion, much of Leaves of Grass can be labeled as such. What might be more fruitful, at least to understand Whitman, is to make a distinction between masturbation and onanism. It is the very quality and intensity of the fantasy or erotic experience that makes masturbation a success. By definition, onanism has no nuclear aim; it yields no fruit, for its intention is to avoid creation. Therefore, onanism is inherently a disintegration outcome; but masturbation, when it is attended by the fantasy that is good enough, is the activity that has the most poetic yield. Through masturbation with a superb erotic fantasy, Whitman succeeded in impregnating the muse and writing poetry that evoked the future. He wrote poems that brought forth and later nourished his future readers. His progeny was destined to be a great race of singers.

Kohut said that once the “self has crystallized, it pursues inexorably one single end: it strives, beyond the pleasure principle to fulfill itself.”[69] But to pursue such an end required an empathic milieu that would eclipse the need for pleasure alone. This required freedom. For Whitman, freedom was apotropaic, a source of protection against nuclear extravagance. He hoped to someday protect himself from every act that turned or wandered from his nuclear destiny, aspiring toward a “freedom of One’s-self from the tyrannic domination of vices, habits, appetites, under which nearly every [one] of us, (often the greatest brawler for freedom,) is enslaved.”[70] We must be careful to understand that Whitman did not seek a freedom from masturbation in general, but only from improper masturbation, or masturbation full of pleasure but devoid of purpose. Masturbation only becomes a vice when it is not being used toward its proper end—the realization of nuclear aims. These are concerns of the two tendencies of our personality. Here is Kohut on these two tendencies:

The self, whether in the sector of its ambitions or in the sector of its ideals, does not seek pleasure through stimulation and tension-discharge; it strives for fulfillment through the realization of its nuclear ambitions and ideals. Its fulfillment does not bring pleasure, as does the satisfaction of a drive, but triumph and the glow of joy. Its blocking does not evoke the signal of anxiety (e.g., of castration anxiety—anxiety concerning the loss of the penis as the supreme source of pleasure), but the anticipation of despair (e.g., of shame and empty depression—anticipatory despair about the crushing of the self and of the ultimate defeat of its aspirations).”[71]

Yet Kohut provided us with an exception that helps us understand Whitman: “The predominance, on the one hand, of the self-realizing tendencies over the pleasure-seeking drives does not lead to conflict if the pleasure seeking sector (the sector of single functions) subordinates itself smoothly to the supraordinated goals of the self....”[72] Whitman did not so much believe that one tendency should be subordinated to another, but rather that they be blended and work together. He asserts, “the other I am must not be abased to you, / And you must not be abased to the other.”[73] For Whitman, the nuclear principle and the pleasure principle coexisted and his self stood unaccosted: “Apart from the pulling and the hauling stands what I am....”[74] Kohut even sanctioned such a stance. He noted that “the presence of disharmony and conflict between the two realms of the personality may not stifle a gifted individual’s productivity; that it may perhaps serve as a stimulus for creative responses—even if the contest between the two realms for the dominance of one over the other remains unresolved throughout a whole (unhappy) lifetime.”[75] Whitman was successful in merging pleasure and aims. As he noted: “Give me now libidinous joys only, / Give me the drench of my passions, give me life course and rank....”[76] Libidinal energy and nuclear joy meet in the “course and rank” affair of masturbation. Whitman’s poetic creativity relied on his productivity, his ability to masturbate successfully.

Both Emerson and Thoreau urged Whitman to take the “sex” out Leaves of Grass. But for Whitman, taking the sex out of his poems would have been tantamount to excising parts of his self. To his future readers, these sex “parts” would serve as self psychological clues. They were the most successful poems—those able to elicit responses from future readers. They were also points of pride because they represented “successful” masturbations. It was precisely by understanding his sexual parts that the reader could empathically know why Whitman’s self was stunted, as well as the intricate process that he initiated for its restoration. This being understood, Whitman’s seminal words have been sown within the reader’s empathic soil and they are now ready to perform the set of functions he so desired.

The Reader as Client

“To be lean’d and to lean on.”[77]

            Whitman announced a new distribution of roles.[78] He expected his reader to be a client. Etymologically, a client is “one who leans.” He is also one who “listens” and “obeys. To be a client is to listen to a teacher and submit to instruction. Whitman reminds us that he “is for those who have never been mastered,” for those who have never been subjected to a fierce idealizing transference.[79] Early on in Leaves of Grass, Whitman acquaints the reader with his towering expectations:

You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your

            sole and exclusive standard,

Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,

The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives

            around you would have to be abandoned,

Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go

            your hand from my shoulders,

Put me down and depart on your way.[80]

To be with him requires devotion akin to religious fervor. The reader is instructed to keep his or here own psychological theories at bay; Whitman himself is the theory. Perhaps he hoped we would utter his own words: “Now I will do nothing but listen, / To let accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.”[81] If, as self psychological readers, we are able acquiesce to Whitman’s need for us to be a patient, we will discover that he requires us to provide selfobject functioning in a most astonishingly original way. But should we choose the novitiate, Whitman will subject the reader to his most awesome demand: we must become nothing.

Whitman Submits the Reader to an Idealizing Transference

            Kohut suggested a possible motivation for the patient who initiated an idealizing transference: “I am nothing, but at least there is something great and perfect outside myself that is the carrier of what I formerly experienced. All I can do now is to try to attach myself to it, even though I am nothing, and then I will become as great as it is.”[82] By idealizing him, Whitman hoped that his readers would grow to be as great as his own egotistical persona in his poems. We should recall Whitman’s philosophy of poetic greatness: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”[83] Whitman wanted to subject his readers to a peculiar and extremely harsh idealizing transference so that they would be later able to serve his own selfobject needs. In this passage, our master begins the transference:

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,

Open your scarf’d chops till I blow grit within you,

Spread  your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,

I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare,

And any thing I have I bestow.


I do not ask who you are, that is not important to me,

You can do nothing and be nothing but what I will infold you.[84]

Whitman has said that sex was the “espousing principle” and “gives breath of life to [his] whole scheme....”[85] Masturbation and supreme erotic fantasies were the espousing principles that inspired the entire scheme of Leaves of Grass. But good writing, as we have said, leaves a task to yet be performed. Whitman believed his entire poetic corpus was preparation, or procreation. It was still incomplete without his future readers. As Whitman tells us, “Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.” [86] Now he would create his readers that would receive his body of work. This creation would come through the form inspiration. If Whitman created poems that truly inspired he would be assured his reader’s response would be strong, perfect, capable and loving. “I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up,” he tells us.[87] Whitman did not intend his poems to be a one-time inspiration either. He hoped the reader would perpetually inspired by his words: “Breathe my breath also through these songs.”[88] If his poems succeeded in this manner, Whitman was assured that his readers were continually subjected to an idealizing transference until they were then strong enough to serve his selfobject needs. He has created us out of his love spendings and now he will give us the true breath of life, blowing his own greatness into all the folds of our soul. By doing so he hoped to create a soul [a selfobject] of his own choosing, a soul far different from the unempathic souls of his own time. Every time the reader opened his book, Whitman hoped his poems would enfold the reader’s soul. They might even hear the chant behind the breath: “The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them, / And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.”[89] Now the reader is ready (great enough) to give Whitman what he has so long waited for—the empathic mirroring response.  

Performing the Mirroring Function: Singing Whitman’s Song

Through his poetry, Whitman hoped to fill the future with a “race of singers and poems differing from all others, and rigidly their own....”[90] Mirroring would constitute singing his songs back to him. In fact, Whitman’s poems were supposed to function in this way. As he stated:  “My poems... have been recited, as it were, by my Soul, to the special audience of Myself, far more than to the world’s audience.”[91] It was precisely Whitman’s readers, empathic “Souls” of the future that would perform this recitation. For Whitman, all the world would became a stage; yet, during this part of the transference, all are performers but himself. His part as writer was over. “I will play the part no longer,” he proclaims in “Native Moments.”[92]

Now Whitman would become the client proper. From here on, his analysis was to become a perpetual audition. The reader has now been made into the strong performer, “singing loud his savage song.”[93] Now that the reader has been made into this strong performer, Whitman can freely slip back and enjoy his role as client: “O the joy of my soul leaning pois’d on itself, receiving identity through materials and loving them, observing characters and absorbing them....”[94]

But ever the perfectionist, Whitman still questions our efficacy as his selfobject. He wonders if we are strong enough. Each reader will be posed the question: “Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside? / Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my strength, gait, face?”[95] Leaves of Grass is, by constitution, a text of grandiosity. Through its lessons, Whitman taught his readers strength; but he also expected strength in return. Even though the reader has been sufficiently dilated and inspired, Whitman hoped they would continue on, to become greater, different and rigidly their own. To help the reader understand the value of this unique need, Whitman gave us a model of his ideal performer:

To our model, a clear-blooded, strong-fibered physique is indispensable; the question of food, drink, air, exercise, assimilation, digestion, can never be intermitted. Out of these we descry a well-begotten selfhood—in youth, fresh, ardent, emotional, aspiring, full of adventure; at maturity, brave, perceptive, under control, neither too talkative nor too reticent, neither flippant nor somber; of the bodily figure, the movements easy, the complexion showing the best blood, somewhat flush’d, breast expanded, an erect attitude, a voice whose sound outvies music, eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable of flashing—and a general presence that holds its own in the company of the highest.[96]

Here, Whitman has touched upon three signs that, according to Kohut, are indicative of self psychological health.

First, is the notion of complexion and an appropriately “flushed” face. This has been discussed by Kohut when said, “Good narcissistic balance tends to be experienced as a glowing warmth, red cheeks, sparkling eyes, full lips....”[97]

Second is, Whitman’s notion of digestion as the sine qua non of self-esteem. Kohut has used assimilation metaphors rather vigorously. Through a kind of alimentary annihilation, the “foreign protein” of the selfobject must be broken down into our own protein before it can be truly assimilated into our self.[98] Whitman believed that his poems were destined to become that “foreign protein” in the reader’s self. His poems are an alimentary offering:

I therefore now bequeath Poems and Essays as nutriment and influences to help truly assimilate and harden, and especially to furnish something toward what The States [and their Selves] most need of all, and...begin to show them, Themselves distinctively, and what They are for.”[99]

Whitman relied on his readers being distinctly for his self and its nuclear destiny. His poems are offered to his readers as psychological nutriment, in order that we may serve him as a better and more confident selfobject. But to do this, Whitman tells his readers that they must “have interiorly tinged the chyle of all [his] verse, for purposes beyond.”[100] But to understand Whitman’s complicated bequeathal, the reader must understand the difference between influence and nutriment.

For Whitman, influence was not beneficial in and of itself. On the contrary, it was only half of a two-fold process. He understood influence as a gross identification with a figure of idealization. Influence truly serves us, or becomes nutriment, only after it is reckoned with—broken down into its own nuclear constituents and then rebuilt according to principles from within. Whitman believed that the ultimate lesson comes from “Nature’s stomach” which is “strong enough not only to digest morbific matter...but even to change such contributions into nutriment for highest use and life....”[101] In the end, only what survived the stomach of the reader’s self would be absorbed as nutriment, later to appear in Whitman’s “strength, gait, face.”

Structure by destruction: digestion is the very method by which Whitman deals with influence from the idealized selfobject. Theodore Roethke, one of Whitman’s poets to come, knew this harsh method all too well. He offered this stern advice to younger poets: “don’t fret too much about being ‘influenced,’ but make sure you chew up your old boy with a vengeance, blood, guts and all.”[102] That “old boy” to which Roethke refers is the idealized selfobject. Whitman did not just want his own songs merely echoed back to him; he wanted another poet reciting his poems in their own authentic manner. Another poet to come, Robert Frost, further expressed what Whitman truly wanted: “He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech, / But counter-love, original response.”[103] Whitman’s nuclear program (the fruition of Leaves of Grass) was contingent upon other great poets. Great poets are original; an original maker would provide an original response. Whitman wanted his readers to compound his song with their own constitution, creating not just his peculiar selfobject, but also an outstanding original.

Last but not least, Whitman required his model performer to possess a strong-fibered physique and graced with easy movements—undoubtedly qualities resulting from a robust exercise regimen. Kohut has discussed how the generation of heat (through exercise and other means) is essential in maintaining self-esteem and good narcissistic balance.[104]  Exercise involves perspiration, which by function is the exudation of harmful substances, but more deeply a means of removing heat from the body. The Whitmanian grandiosity that was inspired through early readings of the poems must now be subjected to one final process. Whitman has said that, “The greatness of the sons is the exuding of the greatness of mothers and fathers....”[105] He also told his readers that “not all matter is fuel to heat,” by which he meant that his own grandiosity would not serve to restore his narcissistic balance in full.[106] Whitman expected his own grandiosity would eventually be exuded from the reader’s self when it no longer served.

Whitman is concerned with what he called “Me and Mine,” that is, his own self and its nuclear destiny. Kohut tells us that the nuclear self is formed “by the deeply anchored responsiveness of the self-objects, which, in the last analysis, is the function of the self-objects’ own nuclear selves.[107] The nucleus, is literally the “nut” or “kernel” of the self. Keenly, Whitman believed in this nuclear law of nourishment: “Only the kernel of any object nourishes;”[108] As Emerson said: “Deep calls unto deep.”[109] Whitman hopes his readers will respond to him from the depths of their own nuclear selves.  Depth responsiveness consisted of one nuclear self respecting, nurturing and ultimately mirroring the other.[110] Whitman imagined infinite worlds of possible readers, each one an original responder. If Whitman’s readers became the perfect men and women he so longed for, he would have the chance to build a towering selfhood that would fulfill his enormous narcissistic needs. To the making of selfobjects there would be no end. The mirroring response would be carried on forever. 

The Noble Termination of Whitman’s Identity and Analysis[111]

            Eventually though, Whitman’s selfobject needs would change. At some point, he would need to either transform or even end the relationship with his reader. This leads us to that pivotal moment in any analysis—termination. Kohut has said that a “valid” termination, or one ending in strength, is “defined by the internal given in the personality,” and that it “establishes itself spontaneously.”[112] When spontaneous poetic utterances occur in the course of Whitman’s analysis, he hopes his readers will not understand them as flights into health, but as a signs of internal strength. To illustrate this, let’s look at a line from “Song of the Redwood Tree” in which he spontaneously tells us, “My time has ended, my term has come.[113] Kohut helps us to understand Whitman’s desire to terminate:

In narcissistic personality disorders, such a termination relates to that patient when something in the self-consolidation has reached a point at which the patient feels that he is now firmly enough put together to do the further ongoing interminable work of analysis on his own. It is a point when he no longer needs the transference figure of the selfobject in the flesh in order to consolidate his self....[114]

Each reader’s flesh and blood presence would help in the task of consolidating his self. Whitman was “now firmly enough put together;” we can imagine him content with his structure, and the part one reader has played in helping him build it. Whole restoration it is not; but as Robert Frost reminds us:

…the comfort is

In the covenant

We may get control

If not of the whole

Of at least some part...[115]

Whitman is comforted because he recalls his own poetic belief:  “One age is but a part—ages are but a part...”[116] It was his destiny to have not just a covenant with one reader, but with an eternity of readers. Therefore, Whitman’s quest for wholeness and restoration would require flesh and blood readers in other ages. Some would be greater than others; but each would furnish their parts toward his soul.[117] Through these self-selfobject relationships with his future readers, Whitman will continue to saunter through time, striving to achieve that towering selfhood for which he so longed. Each empathic selfobject response would rekindle his “dead” self. Whitman not only expected self psychological readers but also great poets; as he tells us, the great poet “drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet...he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you.”[118]

The analysis with one reader is over, but countless others lie ahead. By its construction, Leaves of Grass is a book made for the future, intended for greater audiences. Inevitably, it will subvert the present in favor of what lies ahead. Therefore, as readers of the present, we are not destined to behold the “final lilt” of Whitman’s song. His narcissism demands more than one reader or age could supply. As he exclaims: “Give me interminable eyes—give me women—give me comrades and lovers by the thousands! / ... / Let me see new ones every day—let me hold new ones by the hand everyday! / ... / O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!”[119] Interminable eyes would ensure Whitman’s interminable analysis. But he not only yearned for the final lilt of his song, but for empathic readers who understood that great irrepressible need. Whitman confirms this: “I am willing to wait to be understood....”[120] Even Kohut has told us, “There is no end to understanding.”[121]

 Grateful to each of his readers, for furnishing their parts toward his soul, we can imagine Whitman thinking to himself,  “Now transmuted, we [Me and Mine] swiftly escape as Nature escapes,”[122] as he bids us farewell:

Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,

I give it especially to you, do not forget me,

I feel like one who has done my work for the day to retire awhile,

I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending,

            while others doubtless await me,

An unknown sphere more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening

            rays about me, So long!

Remember my words, I may again return,

I love you, I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.[123]

Remembering Whitman’s Greatness (And His Self Psychological Health)

“He or she is greatest who contributes the greatest original practical example.”[124]

Whitman created a book that would not soon be forgotten. Through this contribution, he hoped we have learned his lesson complete: that there exists in everyone an eternal need to be mirrored. By example and method, Whitman teaches us how to procure mirroring responses that circumnavigate death and span the centuries: the self must become a book; the flesh must return to Word. (And yet, the poetic paradox remains, for he tells his reader, “Camerado, this is no book, who touches this touches a man....”[125]) This was his great example that will always be remembered. Here is Kierkegaard on remembrance:

Everyone shall be remembered, but each became great in proportion to his expectation. One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became greater than all....Everyone shall be remembered, but each was great in proportion to the greatness of that which he strove. For he who strove with the world became great by overcoming the world, and he who strove with himself became great by overcoming himself, but he who strove with God was greater than all.[126]

Whitman was “greater than all” because he expected the impossible: He expected to have a self- selfobject relationship with his future readers that spanned across time and was not confined by death; and yet, Whitman failed according to Kierkegaard’s second criteria for greatness. He sought to overcome himself, rather than struggle with God. For Whitman, mortal gods were enough: His parents, Emerson, and the audience of his own time. Frost later echoed Whitman’s sentiment:  “Grant me intention, purpose, and design— / That’s near enough for me to the Divine.”[127] Whitman admonished his readers to be not curious about God; yet, if we are, we can find him in “every object,” and see him in “the faces of men and women” as well as our “own.” God is to be beheld, but not “understood” for we do not  “understand who there can be more wonderful than [ourselves].”[128]

Yet, keeping in mind the contradictory nature of Whitman’s poems, I believe that is was reunion with God, the selfobject supreme, that was the true mainstay of Whitman’s belief system. He thought that God might be an even fiercer selfobject than all of his mortal counterparts. But this was a reunion that would happen on Whitman’s own terms. He had to make sure he was well prepared and perfected—formidable enough for that supreme congress: As he has told us: “My rendezvous is appointed, and is certain, / The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms, / The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there....”[129] But until then, what better way to rehearse for that divine meeting than to grapple with an eternity of readers in self-selfobject relationships.  

The Joy of a Well Begotten and Immortal Selfhood

In conclusion, I’d like to end my essay by juxtaposing a pivotal idea from Kohut with a cascade of reader responses. In Kohut’s final essay he spoke of the peak values of modern man:

The peak values of the modern man, in other words, are those values that guide and sustain him in the attempt to reassemble his self through an increased and guilt-free ability to find appropriate selfobjects and in the attempt to liberate his innate ability to serve—and serve joyfully as a selfobject for others.[130]

Whitman believes in these peak values, as he tells us: “The Modern Man I sing.”[131] Despite the depth of Whitman’s narcissism, and the profoundly intense urge to fulfill his nuclear destiny, ultimately, he hoped that his readers would help liberate his innate ability to serve as selfobject for them. Whitman thought of his readers as his beloved children. They were the next generation of robust poets; and, by the end of his analysis, he will bless this next great race of singers by serving their selfobject needs.[132]  And through a reader response perspective, Whitman will serve—but not until he is ready. We must use our power of persuasion before he and his poems, in principle, serve as our selfobject, without any nuclear end of his own. As he tells us, “I may have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of it? / Must not Nature be persuaded many times?”[133]

Yet despite his protestation, Whitman will give us (and joyfully so) a series of selfobject blessings. Keeping in mind the reader’s own nuclear self and its program, he asks us, “Have I not through life kept you and yours before me?”[134] He performs a doxology for each reader’s self: “I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing the songs of the glory of you.” [135] In a kind of cantatory curtailment, he says: “I cease from my songs for thee,”[136] In effect, Whitman seems to be saying to each reader, “Where my poem is, there your poem shall be.”[137] But in just the same way that Whitman intuitively knows when to terminate, so should the readers realize when their time as reader is over coming to an end.[138] When that moment occurs, Whitman  exhorts: “Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness, / Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.”[139]

At times, a reader may feel overwhelmed by Whitman’s extensive narcissistic needs; at other times they might be moved to the depths of their soul by his magnanimous gestures. It is important for each reader to find a unique and proper balance in his or her self-selfobject relationship. In the end though, Whitman believed not only in his future, but the reader’s future. As he reminds us, “the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”[140]  After we served our part in his nuclear destiny, he hoped his readers would go on to fulfill their own—to void all but their own joy, and then “sound” their own “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the word.”[141] If we read Whitman’s poems as he ultimately intended us to—that is, less as a reader and more as a poet, then—deep beneath the rustle of his leaves, we may very well him whisper a great and immortal chant to our future: “Yourself! yourself! yourself, for ever and ever!”[142]



[1] Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, sec. 7, p. 119.

[2]Whitman, Me Imperturbe, p. 12.

[3] Whitman would approve of Ben Jonson’s admonishment to his own future readers: “Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand, / To read it well: that us to understand.” We would have to be more than mere readers for Whitman to trust us: “If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee” To read Whitman “well” we would have to take “care” and read him empathically. From a self psychological perspective, this kind of understanding can only occur via introspection and empathy. (From his Epigrams and The Alchemist respectively, cited in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, ed. Hugh Maclean, (New York: WW  Norton and Co., 1974), p. 5.

[4] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p.443

[5] Ibid.

[6] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p. 453.

[7] Ibid, p. 444.

[8] Whitman, 1855 Preface, p. 425.

[9] Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure?, p. 141.

[10] Ibid., p. 149.

[11] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p. 451.

[12] Whitman, Long, Long Hence, p. 374.

[13] Kohut, Search 3, p. 390-39.

[14] Ibid., p.390.

[15] Whitman, 1855 Preface, p. 417.

[16] Whitman, One Song, America, Before I Go, p. 406.

[17] Whitman, Song of the Answerer, p. 124.

[18] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 1, p. 25.

[19] Whitman, Mediums, p. 333.

[20] Whitman, 1876 Preface, p. 434.

[21] Heinz Kohut, Search for the Self, vol. 2, ed. Paul Ornstein, (New York: International Universities Press, 1978), p. 757.

[22] Whitman, Starting From Paumanok, sec. 12, p. 20.

[23] Heinz Kohut, The Kohut Seminars, ed. Miriam Elson (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), p. 63.

[24] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 48, p. 66.

[25] Whitman, Song of the Broad-Axe sec. 4, p. 138.

[26] Kohut, Search vol. 3, p. 213.

[27] Heinz Kohut, The Chicago Institute Lectures, ed. Paul and Mary Tolpin, (Hillside: Analytic Press, 1996), p. 45.

[28] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p. 455.

[29] Kohut, Lectures, p. 28. The word main has an interesting etymological field which encompasses to “take hold” and “support.” It has deeper notions of  “power” and efficacy. Whitman expected us to use this powerful depth psychological tool.

[30] Whitman, To Get the Final Lilt of Songs, p. 360.

[31] Kohut. Search 4, p. 594.

[32] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 18, p. 37.

[33] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 3, p. 26.

[34] Whitman, Starting From Paumanok 2, 16

[35] Whitman, 1856 Letter to Emerson, Murphy, p. 52.

[36] Whitman, Apostroph, p. 398.

[37] Kohut, Lectures, p. 372. Theodore Roethke, another student of grandiosity, exhorts us to “say, Come off it: I say stay with it, come on it, do it grosser and greater, larger and fatter, earlier and later.” From Straw for the Fire (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 259.

[38] Kohut, Lectures, p. 372.

[39] Wallace Steven’s notes, “The strength at the center is serious.” From his poem, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, sec. XVII, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1982), p. 477.

[40] Kohut, Seminars, p. 247.

[41] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec. 2, 241.

[42] Kohut, Lectures, p. 249.

[43] Ibid., p. 244.

[44] Ibid., p. 245.

[45] Whitman, Song of the Rolling Earth, sec. 1, p. 161.

[46] Kohut, Lectures, p. 253.

[47] Whitman, Song of the Answerer sec. 1, p. 120.

[48] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 44, p. 61.

[49] Whitman, Here the Frailest Leaves of Me, p. 95.

[50] See Democratic Vistas, p. 456.

[51] Whitman attested, that Leaves of Grass was “avowedly the song of Sex.” He tells his readers that the sex parts “do not stand by itself. The vitality of it is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance—like the clef of a symphony. At last analogy the lines I allude to, and the spirit in which they are spoken, permeate all “Leaves of Grass,” and the work must stand or fall with them, as the human body and soul must remain as an entirety.” From “A Backward Glance” p. 452.

[52] Kohut, Restoration, p. 172.

[53] Kohut, Search 1, ed. Paul Ornstein,  (New York: International Universities Press, 1978), p. 142.

[54] Kohut, Seminars, p. 146.

[55] Whitman, From Pent-Up Aching Rivers, p. 69.

[56] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore sec. 3, p. 242.

[57] I am indebted to Harold Bloom’s rather bold thesis on Whitman and his masturbatory and poetic practices. See the essay “Whitman’s Image of Voice: To the Tally of My Soul” in Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 179.

[58] Whitman, Song of the Rolling Earth sec. 3, p. 164.

[59] Whitman, Myself and Mine, p. 174.

[60] Whitman, We Two, How Long We were Fool’d, p. 81.

[61] The two prime indicators often used to gauge health are one’s ability “to love and to work.” But Whitman did not love and work he masturbated and loafed. Whitman’s leisure time was when he performed the psychometric operation of tallying. And yet it was the most profound kind of love and work, for they set the seeds for future relationships. Masturbation has been often denigrated, seen as unrelational, solipsistic or sometimes even as a degradation of love. Whitman profoundly challenges the cultural (and even some self psychological) notions of masturbation.  For Whitman, engaging in mental masturbation was the epitome of health.  “I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”(sec. 1, Song of Myself p.25). It was during these times of leisure that the soul (selfobject or the must) is invited, but rarely lingers. Only with an efficacious erotic fantasy does the muse appear stay loafe with Whitman. But when she does, it is a great event, almost beyond belief: “The satisfier, after due long-waiting now advancing, / Here comes my mistress the soul” (Starting from Paumanok, sec. 5 p. 17). Because of her unavailability, Whitman masturbated; and yet this masturbation led to fresh imaginings of selfobject success and thus the creation of new poems.

[62] Kohut, Search 3, p. 371.

[63] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 24, p. 42.

[64] Whitman, A Woman Waits for Me, p. 78.

[65] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 25, p. 43.

[66] Whitman, A Woman Waits For Me, p. 77.

[67] Whitman, Song of Myself sec. 28, p. 45.

[68] Whitman, Respondez!, p. 395.

[69] Kohut, Search 3, p. 214.

[70] Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, p. 336.

[71] Kohut, Search 2, p. 757.

[72] Ibid., pp. 759-760.

[73] Whitman, Song of Myself sec. 5, p. 27.

[74] Ibid., sec. 4, p. 27.

[75] Kohut, Search 2, pp. 760-761.

[76] Whitman, Native Moments, p. 82.

[77] Whitman, Song of the Broad-Axe, sec. 1, p. 135.

[78] “I pronounce openly for a new distribution of roles;” Whitman, Respondez!,  p. 395.

[79] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec.  17, p. 250.

[80] Whitman, Whoever you are Holding me now in hand, p.  86.

[81] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 26, p. 44.

[82] Kohut, Seminars, p. 79.

[83] Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, p. 324.

[84] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 40, p. 57.

[85] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p. 452.

[86] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p…

[87] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 40, p. 57.

[88] Whitman, Chanting the Square Deific, sec.  4, p. 311.

[89] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 51, p. 68.

[90] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p. 454.

[91] Whitman, 1876 Preface, p. 439.

[92] Whitman, Native Moments, p. 82.

[93] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec. 20, p. 252.

[94] Whitman, A Song of Joys, p. 132.

[95] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec.  12, p. 248.

[96] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p. 480.

[97] Kohut, Lectures, p. 245.

[98] Kohut, Seminars, p. 120;  Search 4 p. 367; and How Does Analysis Cure? p. 160 are among them.

[99] Whitman, 1876 Preface, p. 439.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Whitman, Democratic Vistas, p. 470.

[102] Roethke (Straw for the Fire p. 256) is very instructive on the notion of influence. He saw it more as a developmental, phase-appropriate need, something that was necessary (achieving the life-giving fortification of the colostrum) and essential for health, but also something that needed to be outgrown.  His example: “Someone said you have been influenced? Indeed, and no doubt you also drank your mother’s milk”(same page). And for those reluctant to cease the nursing process, he sternly reminds us: “I don’t care if you crawled on your knees from Timbuctoo: and think me the greatest thing since the living Buddha: I’ll not, no I’ll not nurse you, etc. Every poet must be, has to be, remembah: his own mother...”(p. 260). Yet as self psychologists (lay or professional) we must at times, indeed, serve as mother (and father). Yet we must know when and how to say no, and optimally rather than traumatically fail our clients.

[103] Frost, from his poem, “The Most of It”, Collected, p. 307.

[104] Kohut, Seminars, p. 88.

[105] Whitman, Song of the Answerer sec. 2, p. 123.

[106] Whitman, Starting From Paumamok, sec.  8, p. 18.

[107] Kohut, Restoration, p. 100.

[108] Whitman, Song of the Open Road sec.  6, p. 110.

[109] Emerson, form his essay, Nature, Whicher, p. 55.

[110] Namaste is the Hindu greeting meaning “the god in me honors the god in you.” We must adopt a similar stance: “The nuclear program in me honors the nuclear program in you.” But we must compound it with the Whitmanian spirit: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher” (Song of Myself, sec. 47, p. 65). We honor each other most by using the foreign protein of our selfobject, destroying it by digestion and rebuilding it according to our own nuclear principles. This kind of destruction should be considered holy: “There is a holiness that builds and there is a holiness that destroys. The benefits of the holiness that builds are visible, while the benefits of the one that destroys are hidden, because it destroys in order to build what is nobler than what has been built already. One who understands the secret of the holiness that destroys can mend many souls, and his capacity for mending is in accordance with his understanding” Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, The Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters and Poems, trans. Ben Zion Bokser, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) p. 217.

[111] The “noble termination of our identity” is derived from a footnote in the 1876 Preface to Leaves of Grass, p. 435.

[112] Kohut, Lectures, p. 375.

[113] Whitman, Song of the Redwood Tree sec. 1, p. 151.

[114] Kohut, Lectures, pp. 375-376.

[115] Frost, from his poem, “The Holiness of Wholeness”, Collected, p. 452.

[116] Whitman, Poem of Remembrance for a Girl or a Boy of These States, p. 393

[117] As Whitman says in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (sec. 9, p. 120):

We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,

We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,

You furnish your parts toward eternity,

Great of small, your furnish you parts toward the soul.

[118] Whitman, 1855 Preface, p. 417.

[119] Whitman, Give me the Splendid Silent Sun, sec. 2, p. 224.

[120] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec. 14, p. 249.

[121] Kohut, Seminars, p. 23.

[122] Whitman, We To, How Long We Were Fool’d, p. 81.

[123] Whitman, So Long!, p. 350.

[124] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec. 13, p. 248.

[125] Whitman, So Long, p. 349.

[126] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie, (New Jersey: Princeton Universities Press, 1973), p. 31.

[127] Frost, from his poem, “Accidentally on Purpose”, Collected, p. 438.

[128] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 48, p. 66.

[129] Ibid.,  sec. 45, p. 63.

[130] Kohut, Search 4, p. 522.

[131] Whitman, One’s-Self I Sing, p. 5.

[132] See Kohut’s essay, “Introspection, Empathy, and the Semicircle of Mental Health” in Search 4, p. 537.

[133] Whitman, Starting From Paumanok, sec. 15, p. 23.

[134] Whitman, By Blue Ontario’s Shore, sec. 14, p. 249.

[135] Whitman, To You, p. 172.

[136] Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, p. 239.

[137] Harold  Bloom asserts that our precursors, or our poetic parents are absorbed into the id. The proper mode for health is a poetic revisionism of the grand Freudian proclamation of health: Where it was there I shall be. Whitman, in a sense sacrifices himself, voiding his own I (our it) from ourselves, making our own self sacred. For variation on this theme see Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

[138] Kohut has spoken of that “pivotal moment” when he realized that his “time as a reader...was over...because [he] had reached a peak of enjoyment that could never be reached again” (see Kohut, “Greetings” in Search 4, p. 487). Kohut offers a challenge for all readers: to be able to discern precisely when we can no longer serve as a selfobject for an author. As Kohut indicated, our clue to such a moment is when our joy abandons us. Of course, we will continue to serve as a selfobject in some subtle way, for we never totally escape such service; but never again would we do so in the capacious manner as before. Whitman would begin to serve as selfobject for us. But Whitman’s text is  “large” and “contains multitudes.” Perhaps the reader and he can serve each other at once. “We must have a turn together,” is Whitman’s shout in section 23 of Song of Myself.

[139] Whitman, To a Pupil, p. 275. Kohut would say that it is at this point that “the self is in the work.” see Kohut Seminars, p. 277.

[140] Whitman, A Backward Glance, p. 454.

[141] Whitman, Song of Myself, sec. 52, p. 68.

[142] Whitman, To Think of Time, sec. 6, p. 306.

Donald S. Palladino, Jr. works as professional home care-giver and advocate for persons with disabilities; In addition to being a poet and a musician, he is also an independent scholar with especial interests in psychoanalytic self psychology and pastoral theology. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 15487 Boston, MA 02215, (617) 243-0879. Email correspondence can be sent to: This essay is dedicated to C. Anthony Martignetti, for furnishing his parts toward my soul; to Pien Valk, for indispensable eleventh hour editorial comments; and to Melissa Bach—for moments so full of utter magic and for loving the song of myself.

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

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