Every Atom (Reflections on Walt Whitman at 200)

Every Atom (Reflections on Walt Whitman at 200)

by Justin Martin
, August 2019

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe

I selected this lovely line because it’s decidedly not among the classic, oft-quoted ones from “Song of Myself.” Yet the poem is about everything flowing together in harmony, about the smallest parts being essential to the whole. To get a bit Walt-y about it, this line can form the center of the poem, as surely as any other.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman asserts that nothing can hold primacy over anything else: life is not superior to death, nor the present over the past, nor even the scent of an armpit over a soaring prayer. Every being, event, and action is part of something vast and encompassing. But don’t worry, Whitman assures, in this vastness, you are not swallowed up and rendered irrelevant, far from it. The center of infinity can be located anywhere at any time. To cite just a few of Whitman’s myriad examples from the poem, infinity can converge in a newlywed or a runaway slave, a cow that’s finer in form than any statue ever made—even a single blade of grass. Indeed, everyone and everything is unique and serves as a “hub for the wheeled universe.” What a gorgeous, comforting conceit.