Left: John Neagle, The Studious Artist (1836). Collection: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
It’s the silly season again in American politics. Wide-ranging intolerable rants, invectives and urgent pleas are being aimed at the most vulnerable members of our community, marginalizing and vilifying many for simply for not being “one of us,” while seemingly animating others to demand accountability for the actions of the “one-percent.” This Age of Exclusion seems to strike a chord with alarmingly large numbers of people on both sides of the aisle—those fed up with the system, with died-in-the-wool politicians and with a feeling of powerlessness—who then, historically, act on a sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement to take notice, rise up and agitate for change. This particular essay is not a call for some ill-defined new world order, or even for an upending of our historically-stable republican (small-‘r’) system. Yet, this current state of affairs is all too reminiscent of a passage by William Butler Yeats, who fretted in his 1919 post-apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” xxxxx
The clarion call that should be raised in this current political climate, I believe, rests with a considered review of the words of another man once described as “America’s first poet of democracy.” That poet, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), broke ground in the 19th century with his slowly-evolving publication, Leaves of Grass. Published in many editions over a thirty-three-year period, it gradually morphed into a series of keen—even prophetic—observations of the American psyche. Near death in 1891, Whitman prepared a final edition of his tome, writing, “L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.”
So, in this time of unrest and impending rejection of the very essence of our nationhood—a nation of immigrants and an aspiring middle class—we may want to ask: What Would Walt Whitman Do?
Anything but the perpetual optimist, Whitman nevertheless maintained an unerring belief in the power of the human spirit, and particularly that of the American body politic. A careful reading of some of his best-known epic works, such as Song of Myself, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, I Hear America Singing and Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd reveals his desire to give voice to the anonymous multitudes surrounding him on the streets, ferries and private gathering places of New York, along with a desire to connect in both body and soul with any and all who passed within the orb of his presence or his poetry.
Left: ‘The Ferry at Brooklyn’ (c. 1850), hand-colored lithograph. Coll., the author.
Richard Tayson, writing for www.poets.org says, “Whitman is interested in surface beauty only insofar as it encompasses his principle goal of connecting human to human. ‘The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things,’ Whitman declares. ‘. . . the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. . . . The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor.’ No matter how beautiful, ornate, delicate, industrious, alluring or colorful a surface, no matter the sophistication of clever forms neat as parlor puzzles, if the poem does not connect with soul through body it cannot link person to person, and is therefore in Whitman’s eyes utter failure.”
Right: First edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ (1856).
Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself in 1855. In self-effacing fashion, no name is given as author; instead, facing the title page was an engraved portrait done by Samuel Hollyer; but 500 lines into the body of the text he calls himself “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.” In these references—which are blatantly egalitarian—Whitman proclaims the poet to be no better than the common man. Many politicians should read (re-read?) Whitman with his lessons of humility and inclusion in mind. In his preface to Leaves of Grass , Whitman cautions “AMERICA does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms . .”
Later in his Preface, Whitman cautions, “The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen. Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man . . . nor suffice the poet. No reminiscences may suffice either. A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have the best authority the cheapest . . . namely from its own soul.” Here Whitman is cautioning the reader to recall his or her origins in a nation founded on principles of equality and a vision of greatness for the lowliest among us. Otherwise, it is “…as if the opening of the western continent by discovery and what has transpired since in North and South America were less than the small theatre of the antique or the aimless sleepwalking of the middle ages!”
In an increasingly unstable world, as we move from mind-numbing crisis to crisis—global conflict to global warming to gun violence and civil strife—the words of this 19th century poet are never more germane or urgent. For me, any reading of Whitman’s poetry enlivens the imagination, propelling the mind, body and soul to a plane of higher expectation—of myself and others. This sensation may be illusory in today’s world, one so much more complex than that of an earlier time. But, the ‘good ol’ days always seem to apply to some other time and place, never the here-and-now. Whitman’s spirited text seems to embrace the art of the possible and ‘doable,’ unerringly captured in his rousing and ebullient syntax. Whitman’s advice may still—150 years after this preface was first published—influence us with the best example of a treatise celebrating self as universal ‘other.’ Whitman’s world is one where the boundaries of ego and self-absorption are eradicated in the name of some greater good, or perhaps ‘goodness,’ best described in his own words in Song of the Open Road:
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Right: Lower East Side of New York (c. 1890).
Deliberately written in the cadence of Biblical verse, Whitman’s Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass extolls: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
These are words to live by.
By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor