I am a poet and an English Major, and I still found poetry difficult. After I left college, I really didn’t feel like reading it for about 20 years. And I never really liked Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman is one of America’s great foundational poets, among the first of the truly modern and authentic voices of the English Language. And I knew and respected that about him even when I didn’t like his poetry. It simply never spoke to me, seemed bombastic, sloppy, unfocused.
My opinion of Whitman changed completely last week. A friend of mine sent me a link to a woman who had undertaken a very special documentary. She was crisscrossing Alabama, telling people she wanted to learn about the variety of folks living there, and asking them to read Walt Whitman for the camera.
I watched with a skepticism that lasted about 10 seconds. Then I started to cry. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/poetry/southerners-reciting-walt-whitman-verses-can-teach-us-america/
I couldn’t believe how much Whitman’s words transformed the readers. They went from ordinary people to soothsayers, offering profundities with ease and grace. Their faces matured just like the faces of my students when I teach them something amazing and they “get it.”
And yet, the things Whitman are saying are obvious as well as profound. They are not mysteries, and they are not clothed in obscure, flowery language. When the participants recite, they are channeling the truth.
And they know it. These people, who I admit I never would have expected to respond to poetry, become eloquent, profound, direct. They look at me and shake my world.
This is a tribute to the power of art at its best, and I’m taking note. Whitman’s poetry speaks the truth as directly as possible, and when someone reads it, they recognize it as the truth. They willingly transform themselves for the purpose of speaking it, and find in Whitman the ideal vehicle for its transmission.
I think that the documentary was supposed to be for the purpose of showing us the depth and also the commonality of our populace. It does that. But by using Whitman it also makes a case for art in general.
Art is not something rich people buy to hang on their wall. If it is truly great, it belongs to us. We just have to own it and, however possible, transmit it.