Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

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
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.

Y is for Yawp


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

                              From “Song of Myself,” Verse 52, by Walt Whitman

We all want to make our mark somehow, to scrawl on the wall of life, “I was here.” We have this primal urge to make our presence known, and I find it fascinating to see all the ways people find to yawp.

Some yawp often, and publicly, like the folks who don outrageous, flashy outfits and strut down the street like exotic birds. I admire their flair and, sometimes, their fashion sense. I suppose loud laughers are yawping, and loud talkers too, though I sometimes wish they’d find a less grating way to yawp.

Artists of all kinds are yawpers, though each cry may take years of careful preparation. A visual artist’s yawp emerges from her body and remains, ringing out loud and clear, perhaps long after she’s gone. Ditto writers, composers, architects. Performing artists can reach many at one yawp. Can you recall the best concert or play you’ve ever attended? I’ll bet that energy and inspiration still vibrates in your bones.

And what about those who prefer a more subdued wardrobe and aren’t artistically inclined? How do they yawp? I read an article recently that used the word “yawp” to describe the rush of energy and achievement after vigorous exercise. Excellent wordsmithing there—my Zumba class is full of soft-spoken older women who, in that safe setting, clap their hands and shake their hips and yawp.

It’s sad, I think, when someone doesn’t find her own way to yawp. Working in a cubicle farm and shopping at the mall doesn’t give one much of a forum for that primal cry: “I’m here!” Kids know how to yawp, though. I scribbled notes for this post while subbing for a middle-school performing arts teacher. Ay ay ay, such yawping! With the slightest encouragement, kids this age will tell you just what’s unique about them. In fact, they’re dying to be asked. I wonder what happens between middle school and high school to dampen down that yawp.

What’s the connection between “yawp” and my focus on retirement (besides being a cool word that starts with Y)? The urge to yawp doesn’t go away with age; we still need to proclaim our presence, cry out with our unique songs.

As we come to the end of the A-Z blog challenge, it occurs to me that “yawp” is a good description of what we’re doing here—each of us throwing our thoughts and whims out into the ether, hoping some like-minded soul will hear and answer, like hawks calling as they soar. Which leads me to another bit of Whitman’s wisdom. Instead of a hawk, he imagines the brave soul seeking connection as a spider, throwing her filaments of web into the unknown, in full faith that it will catch somewhere.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.