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"What Think You I Take My Pen in Hand?" (1860)

Originally number 32 of the "Calamus" cluster, this poem is one of a number devoted to a contrast between two sets of values, such as opposition of worldly success and personal love in "No Labor-Saving Machine." In this case, the poem opposes two possible subjects of art, to be recorded by the poet. At one level this is an aesthetic distinction, between the epic and the lyric, or between the sublime and the picturesque, but it is also an evocation of the meaning of personal love against more social or political themes.

After the introductory question, the poem is divided in half, with three lines listing possible "great" subjects of art, concluding with a forceful "No," and a series of three more lines, beginning "But" and recounting a glimpse of two men kissing good-bye on the pier. Whitman's outdoor scene, a moment of time, contrasts with the pretensions of the more dramatic scenes of the majestic battleship or the glory of the great city.

Whitman identified that spontaneous moment with male love, which represents in the poem a life of simplicity, passion, and affection. The poem troubles its readers not by its assertion of the natural over the historical and social but by identifying that natural with the men's kiss, a moment of affection that takes place "in the midst of the crowd," that asserts its right to public space for affection. Martin has called attention to this poem as the search for a "feminine" poetics and linked Whitman's strategies to those of women writers.


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

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