Verse Day: Whitman, America, and our democratic process


You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman – Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, friend of the poet.He is America’s poet….

He IS America – Ezra Pound

The greatest American poet is Walt Whitman. He is often referred to as the “poet of democracy” and as “the chronicler of the American character.” No other American poet matches him for breadth of vision about our country, nor for exploration of the political and social divisions of the United States. One may not always agree with his vision, but one never doubts the open mindedness and basic truth in it.

As we fumble our way toward the election of a new President who must lead our country through what may well be one of its most trying periods, it would do us well to ponder some of that Whitmanesque insight. First, for those who, like Romney, Edwards, Thompson, and Kucinich have fallen by the way;

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

The Republicans, McCain and Huckabee, the poet might admonish to remember that they are Americans as well as members of their party or its more strident elements. To John McCain he might say:

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? Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy. All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.

To Mike Huckabee, he might suggest this:

Be not curious about God. For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God – I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least. I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences. Be curious, not judgmental.

He might speak to the Democrats equally frankly. Hillary Clinton might hear this:

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people. Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools, Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it, Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.

Barack Obama would certainly be told this:

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. And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.

To us, the American people, Whitman could been especially direct:

Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people. Produce great men (and women), the rest follows. Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.

In these days of consideration and decision that lie before us, we would do well to remember this poem:

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, surrounded, 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.

Let us fling our gossamer threads so that they help knit our country’s tattered soul….

7 replies »

  1. As you know, I’ve always kinda had this silly-ass idea that poetry matters. Thanks for proving my point. We can argue over whether WW is our greatest poet, of course…

    Probably the best VerseDay we’ve ever had. Really, just fantastic stuff. You should teach.

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