Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31: America's Most Surprising Poet (Vol. 39, pp. 338-339)

Walt Whitman was born this day in 1819. He is the most modern poet included in this series, and I'm certain that some of the editors of the series might have thought him a little too modern. Certainly, when you compare his work to that of his contemporaries, it is like night and day.

But today, we get prose for Whitman's birthday, and what prose! — the preface to "Leaves of Grass."

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," he writes. Whitman believed that the source of that poetry came from the genius of the common people. In these 10 pages, he demonstrates his great love for America and for all the creative energy it contains.

As manifestos go, this is perhaps one of the best for how a person should conduct his or her life:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one 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 and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."

And that is why Whitman endures as one of America's greatest poets and writers.

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