To honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819), North American Review is publishing two hundred reflections on Whitman—one a day for two hundred days. Brian Clements, curator of the project (“Every Atom”) invited me to participate, and my reflection appeared July 21, 2019, with these opening lines:
In his introduction to this series of reflections on Whitman, Brian Clements includes a quote from Pablo Neruda: “After Walt Whitman, who could even think about writing poetry?”
Right. Agreed. That is the question. My question. Who could? Certainly not me, the not-poet, the one in awe of poets, often confounded and intimidated by poetry, sometimes left puzzling over a stanza’s meaning long after setting a piece aside. But Whitman would tell me not to set that piece aside—not it or any other. He beckons me down the path. “Come walk with me,” he is saying. “Yes, you. Even you.”
If Brian had sought out only poets for the two hundred days of reflections, he wouldn’t have contacted me. But his reach was wide, including (as he noted in his introduction) “poets, writers, artists, critics, scholars, songwriters, leaders, journalists, public figures, and citizens.” Whitman’s poetry speaks to us all.
In preparation, I perused articles about Whitman and spent three days reading Song of Myself out loud in its entirety. I wanted to feel the cadence, hear the repetition, and imagine myself strolling through Whitman’s America circa 1855. I wanted to honor the question Brian set forth in the intro: “Two hundred years after Walt Whitman’s birth, how do we grapple with the complexities of his legacy?”
Grapple, I did. And along the way, as reflections began going up on the site, one each day beginning May 30th, I have read them all. Such an eclectic mix! Click on the image at the top to read mine and on the bottom to peruse them all. The reflections reveal an evolving America. They illustrate how far we’ve come, and at the same time suggest that we need to go further to live up to and into our ideals.