The Wisdom of Walt Whitman

Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy.
–Walt Whitman

A brave soul brought a free-verse poem to today’s critique group. I’m seldom moved to write poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but I do enjoy reading it when it crosses my path. The purpose of poetry, after all, is to communicate a profound meaning in a compact package. Fiction tells a story, but poetry paints in colors of emotion. The poet slams you with a fist of truth, or slices into your heart with painful beauty, or distracts you with a charming image before ambushing you with a weighty understanding.

Some of today’s group members declared themselves uncomfortable critiquing poetry, or averse to poetry without a regular rhyme or meter. Of course, this made me think of my favorite poet, Walt Whitman.

We need you today, Mr. Whitman. Supremely democratic, proudly American, and a wonderful proto-hippie, you (mostly) eschewed the accepted poetic forms of your day to write sprawling, untamed poems that echoed the power and beauty of our (then) new nation. You celebrated the beauty and perfection of the common man—not as one looking down from his lofty tower, but as one who walked among them.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I think both my red and blue friends would find echoes of their varied conceptions of America in Whitman’s poetry. The bigots, of course, would not. Whitman was very inclusive.

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

And Whitman would not shrink from today’s debate and contention, I think. Nor would he admonish anyone to shut up, calling them “snowflakes.”

Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

Whitman would not discourage marchers, and would probably wear a pink hat.

There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country,
if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.

So here’s to Papa Walt Whitman, a devoted American and wise poet who broke the accepted rules to create something wise and precious. In these contentious times, may we be inspired by his all-encompassing, inclusive love for America.

2 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Walt Whitman

  1. Stephanie Faris

    Poetry is a sort of lost art, isn’t it? Today’s poetry is in the songs you hear on the radio, I guess. And in greeting cards! But I wouldn’t feel qualified to critique a poem, either. I have no idea what a good one is supposed to look like!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      That’s the beauty of poetry, though: the freedom it give the writer to bend and break rules of punctuation, syntax, even spelling, in order to create a powerful message.

      Reply

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