I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and poet, in a letter to Walt Whitman, American poet, essayist, and journalist, 21 July 1855
Who didn’t read Walt Whitman’s poetry when they were in high school? As unsophisticated as I was in high school and despite English teachers “teaching” Whitman as a poet whom they had to interpret for us students, I still appreciated his poetry back then and appreciate it even more now. Precisely because on one level he didn’t need to be interpreted, especially when it came to poems as expansive and full of realism as “Song of Myself,” which was included in Leaves of Grass:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
At a time when we read so many poems in archaic language or poems that rhymed or were contained by strict forms – such as iambic pentameter – it was refreshing to read Whitman’s free verse. His boldness appealed to me as a shy teenager. He spoke to all of us and he embraced us all. The poems I most remember him for were the ones that our teacher exposed us to – both about Lincoln: “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”
Today is Whitman’s birthday. Celebrate our great American poet, who was born in 1819 on this day, by reading one of his poems aloud.
Post script: As I thought about Whitman, my mind started wandering and I asked myself if there wasn’t a fictional high school in a classic television show that bore his name. Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles was the setting for the famous history classroom – Room 222, a comedy-drama that ran from September 1969 to January 1974. I looked it up on Google and then listened to the television show’s theme song, which took me back to my childhood. I didn’t watch reruns of it; my sisters and I watched it every Friday evening, after The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and before The Odd Couple and Love, American Style. What a blockbuster line-up. Those were the days. Watching Room 222 back then, that’s what I thought high school was going to be – a thought-provoking place where teachers and the other adults there were passionate about wanting students to make the world a better place once they left. At that time, it made sense that the focus was on an African-American history teacher, played by Lloyd Hanes, supported by an idealistic student teacher (remember Karen Valentine?), the compassionate guidance counselor, and the supportive principal. Not that I can remember too much about the topics covered – and I’m sure many were over my head – but the show grappled with political and human rights issues. That an episode, which aired in 1971, dealt with anti-gay harassment is pretty amazing for its time. We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have a long way to go. But bringing this blog entry back to Whitman the poet and “Song of Myself” seems fitting and comes full circle. Whitman spoke for us all, as we should, too:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!