Words from Walt

My first memories of Walt Whitman’s poetry are of when I took an American Lit class as an undergraduate. We spent the latter half of the course reading and discussing Whitman and Dickinson. I remember being underwhelmed by Dickinson (my appreciation and admiration of her work was slower to come) but I loved Whitman right from the start. I didn’t always know what was going on and I struggled through an analysis of “Scented Herbage of My Breast” for my final paper, but I loved his language, his long lines, his joy and I mean honestly, the guy had a killer look.

My favorite picture of Walt.

As I type these words, I realize that I am wrong about my memories of Whitman. When I was in sixth grade, I had to memorize “O’ Captain, My Captain” and then later I saw Dead Poets Society. I can’t recite the poem anymore. I was never good with memorization and I found that while I could memorize a poem or Shakespearean sonnet for an assignment, as soon as the pressure was off, the words vanished. However, I liked the poem and maybe that reinforced my enthusiasm nearly seven years later when we dove into Leaves of Grass in my American Lit class.

As an adult, a poet and an educator, what I love about Whitman, is that he’s still relevant. He still translates to America and he’s still pretty much got it nailed. I often tell my students that Whitman would be in love with the idea of community college because of its diversity, its opportunity and the idea that education and community are inextricably linked. Of course, they always adore him. I give them an assignment early on to go out and find Whitman in contemporary culture. They don’t have to look too hard. He’s in Levis commercials, candy boxes, interstate signs, whiskey, tobacco and the list goes on. But more important than his marketability, is the staying power of his poetry.

Another assignment I give my students is to rewrite Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” We look at Langston Hugh’s “I, Too, Sing America” as an example and talk about the relevance of the message that both Hughes and Whitman were trying to give voice to. They always love the poem and it always generates good discussion because it still speaks to the larger population.

 I Hear America Singing

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, Too Sing America

 

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

 I, too, am America.

Happy birthday Walt. For all you said and all you continue to say.

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