Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sibling Assignment #40: I Hear America Singing

I'm a little late with this week's sibling assignment. InlandEmpireGirl assigned us the following:
"Think of a poet that has inspired your writing, your thinking, and/or your view of the world. Use your words, the poet's words, and images (and music if you want to be an overachiever!) to illustrate how this poet has influenced your life." IEG's post is here. Silver Valley Girl has yet to Gear Up and finish hers!

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 the 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 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.

In what I'll call the mid-19th century, American poetry was largely influenced by poetry of England. However, writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman worked to forge an American literary voice.

For Whitman, this voice was expansive, all-embracing, democratic, egalitarian; above all, it was a singing voice, full of the vitality and music of free verse, singing the newness, variety, and beauty of what he saw in America.

His style of writing free verse was almost unprecedented, especially in America. Christopher Smart had written a similar verse in his Jubilate Agno, a fragmentary work written to parallel the Anglican liturgy with its praise of God's creation and its expansive lines.

Whitman's long lines of verse, often going line after line before reaching a period (e.g., "I Hear America Singing" is one sentence), mimic the unbridled energy of America itself, as if no traditional line of poetry can contain all that comprises his vision of America and as if the many features of America spill over into one another into a copious fullness and a nearly incomprehensible unity.

It's Whitman's delight in the spacious variety and his envisioned unity of America that has most inspired my own hopes for our country and my own feelings for it, naive and romantic as they might be.

I can't begin to list all that Whitman delights in. But, I can say that Whitman's vision of reality can be seen a few passages I've selected from "Song of Myself":

I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and
fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the
mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.

Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be
shaken away.


I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff
that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the
largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and
hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest
joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin
leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger,
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen
off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the
Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving
their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands
and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

We are, in Whitman's vision, of each other. To make, honor, and perpetuate distinctions of what or who is worthy according to intelligence, class, race, religion, type of being (human or animal), is, to Whitman, to be out of accord with the greater unity and truth he understands at work in the world.

His dream, never fulfilled, is that America, a young country, a new country, a country capable of forging its own traditions and its own identity, might seize its moment in history and live by the greater truth of unity and not succumb to the inferior ways of division and separation.

For his love of the natural beauty of America, his love of every expression of sexual and Platonic love, of Abraham Lincoln, of swimmers, carpenters, mechanics, widows, the aged, the American Indian, the industrious, the walker, the hiker, the hunter, the North, the South, for all the states of the United States; for those in peril, those wounded in war, for boatmen, coalmen, fishermen, lawyers, physicans, and priests, I love Walt Whitman.

But most of all, I love Walt Whitman because he stayed true to a very anti-American ideal: in order to love the world we live in, we must loafe. He writes: "I loafe and invite my soul, /
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

Repeatedly, Whitman conveys that he sees the beauty of animals, human beings, and plants in the all-embracing way he does, not because of the time he spent working and earning, but because of the time he stopped, observed, became a part of the world around him, meditated upon it, and rejoiced.

That's the beauty of loafing.


Hope said...

I like the way you describe Whitman here. "Expansive" is how I see his poetry and the idea of "loafing" makes sense to me. My observations of the world are more detailed and meaningful when I take the time to stop and smell the air.

Inland Empire Girl said...

What a impressive post on Walt Whitman. He was in my top five to write about. Next week I get to teach " Oh Captain, My Captain" in my Heroes theme. I learned to recite that poem in sixth grade. It was the February poem. I really enjoyed how you tied in the loafing part. Good words for all of us.

Inland Empire Girl said...

well, you know... MIWW looks like she is expounding to us the similarities and differences of the writing of W. Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier.