I was an American Studies major in college. It was a true liberal arts experience, and I chose it because of the unique way I was able to create my own course of study. I was allowed to pick and choose any course from any department so long as it reflected a part of the American experience (or, so long as I could, at the end, compare it to the American experience.) I loved this freedom!
After experimenting with Poly Sci., Econ., and straight up history, I gradually found myself taking more and more art history and literature classes. Among these I took a class that examined which American poets best fit Emersons discription of ‘The Great American Poet‘.
It seemed to me that my teacher was partial to Emily Dickinson, and really disliked Walt Whitman, and so for our final essay I argued that Dickinson was the quintessential American Poet. I got an A. I also got a haunting guilt trip. I fell in love with Whitman’s poetry, and have always felt bad that I sold him out for a grade.
In honor of National Poetry Month this April, I will share some of my favorite poems from Whitman. In particular, I LOVElovelovelovelove this one from ‘Leaves of Grass’:
180. When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
I had always thought, especially in elementary & high school, “it would be so much better if I could have a connection and experience FIRST, and then learn about it later!” Turns out, I was right. Little did I know that there was a whole philosophy of education that revolved around this sentiment, and that one day I’d be doing it. While the decision to unschool was radical, it was made easy because I had Whitman’s poetry rattling around in my head, and quotes like this:
“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
Song of the Open Road
8. Beginning my Studies
BEGINNING my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness—these forms—the power of motion,
The least insect or animal—the senses—eyesight—love;
The first step, I say, aw’d me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone, and hardly wish’d to go, any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in extatic songs.
And that there is no flaw or vacuum in the amount of the truth—but that all is truth without exception;
And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.
—150. All is Truth
and another one of my all time favorites:
THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
…(insert long catalogue of wonderously insignificant things that make up the life of a child)
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
…(another catalogue of what a child sees during a day)
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself—the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.”
—103. There was a Child went Forth
In ‘Leaves of Grass’, Whitman wrote,
73. Full of Life, Now
FULL of life, now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the Eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries hence,
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.
When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me;
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)
And that’s the beauty of poetry. Sometimes when I see my kids scrambling over rocks at the creek, running through a field of flowers, discussing which birds are outside our window, painting still life, racing bikes, sleeping out under the stars and identifying constellations…sometimes I think of a random verse of Whitman and feel for a second like he is, indeed, here.
And then I think, “Sorry Walt, for selling you out for an A. You know I love you best.”