Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"City of Orgies" (1860)
Author:
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This "Calamus" poem, which acquired its present title in 1867, was originally called by its first line, "City of my walks and joys!," when published as number 18 in the "Calamus" series in 1860. The manuscript is composed of seven lines (against the published version of nine), with line 5 of the published version not yet present, and the later lines 7 and 8 arranged as a single line.

The poem is characteristic of Whitman's structures of negation. After two apostrophes, there are five successive lines beginning with "Not" or "Nor," followed by two positive evocations of the city's offer of love. Much that Whitman rejects in the poem—the city's pageants, tableaux, or spectacles, its processions and bright windows—is indeed attractive, but it is as nothing compared to the satisfaction offered by "the frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love."

The poem testifies vividly to Whitman's interest in the city as a subject of poetry and to his attempt to capture the reality of the contemporary urban environment. Located in a section of Leaves dominated by the pastoral tradition, it speaks to Whitman's project of writing desire in terms of the multiple possibilities of the new city. Parallel to this wish to write urban desire is an attempt to constitute a community of desire. Whitman's scene of cruising begins the process of creating the modern urban homosexual as an identity. While many of the poems follow a tradition of love poetry that seeks the perfect partner, this poem celebrates another tradition of multiple partners and desires.

Because of its challenge to concepts of romantic love, the poem has been much attacked by critics such as Edwin Miller for depicting the pathetic and "desperate delights of an isolate" (162). Robert Martin, on the other hand, sees it as a celebration of a democratic "sensual awareness" (74) that seeks "Lovers, continual lovers." Perhaps because of its challenge to dominant views of love and sexuality, the poem has not often been discussed in detail.

Bibliography

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.


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