Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear...
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.
- Walt Whitman, "I Hear America Singing"

I have to say I’m sorry.

I recognize, and appreciate, Walt Whitman’s greatness as a poet. But I can’t read his stuff without laughing, despite these sobering words in the introduction to my volume of Whitman’s collected poems:

As Americans trying to understand our past, and even our present and future, we need to understand Walt Whitman.

Maybe this mug shot was the result of a misunderstanding:

Maybe Walt didn’t understand that he was reciting poetry to an undercover officer from the vice squad:

BE composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature;
Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you;

Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.

My girl, I appoint with you an appointment—and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,

And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come. Till then, I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.

("To a Common Prostitute")

Perhaps Walt Whitman WAS the American Bard, but I’m not sure the America of which he wrote ever existed. If it did, I’d like to know where it went. Did Mr. Whitman envision the pinnacle of 21st century American culture, Walmart? Judging from his homage to the common man…

…I think not:

One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say

the Form complete is worthier far,

The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,

Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,

The Modern Man I sing.

("One's-Self I Sing")

Yes, I would like to read Walt Whitman without cracking up.

But I can’t.


I see male and female everywhere,
I see the serene brotherhood of philosophs,
I see the constructiveness of my race,
I see the results of the perseverance and industry of my race,
I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, I go among them, I
mix indiscriminately,
And I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.

("Salut au Monde!")


James Golden said...

What a difference a century makes.

Betty Cloer Wallace said...

Hilarious! And reminiscent of William Shatner reading Sarah Palin's Facebook entries and Levi Johnson's Tweets as "poetry"!

Anonymous said...

I dont know the chronology of Whitman's work, but I have the impression that as time passed he became hopelessly precious. That said, I am willing to forgive a lot in order to have "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Standing".


GULAHIYI said...

"Live-Oak" exhibits more restraint, and Whitman's art is well-served by that. Like Whitman, I can identify with that solitary live-oak, and though it might be self-delusion, I'd like to think I can utter joyous leaves in isolation. I admire Whitman's candor in admitting that he could not.