1. Love learning and ideas.
Whitman's parents were very free-spritied and open-minded people who tried to instill those qualities in their son. Lying around the house would be a copy of the Free Enquirer, a pro-labor union newspaper. His family took him to meetings whenever interesting speakers were in town. One in particular, the radical Quaker Elias Hicks, had a profound influence on Whitman at the age of 10. From Hicks, Whitman learned that God existed in every human being and that humanity was united because of God's love. So if you too would like to re-invent the poetic wheel, start exposing yourself to radical ideas by listening to speeches or reading books and newspapers-turn off the tv.
Whitman wrote in his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, that "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Whitman was infatuated with the idea of America and what she stood for: freedom, equality, justice, love. His poetry was not about war heroes or famous kings. He celebrated the common man-the shoemaker, mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, woodcutter. Those were the people Whitman loved the most because he believed they were the foundation for a vibrant democratic culture. Whitman's passion for equality meant there were no real divisions between rich and poor; male and female; or the educated and illiterate. As he wrote: "I am the poet of slaves and the masters of slaves." "I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man." Whitman's boundless optimism and love for America struck a chord in many people, both in the US and abroad.
However, it's important to know that being patriotic and loving your country does not mean overlooking the times when your fellow citizens and country are acting badly and deserve a spanking. Most people think of Walt Whitman as the jolly old man with the Santa Claus beard who talked about how great democracy and America was and how much we could offer the world. But Whitman, because he cared so deeply about his fellow man and democratic ideals, always spoke out when he saw things happening that were contrary to his beliefs. On slavery, he called it "a disgrace and blot on the character of our Republic and on our boasted humanity!" He worried towards the end of his life about how America's industrialization and rapid wealth would corrupt our principles by making us just greedy and materialistic. He campaigned for worker's rights and championed always the equality between men and women.
Though Whitman later moved to Brooklyn, NY, he always returned to visit Huntington and felt a deep affection for what this little town had given him, which was an appreciation for nature and for the ordinary man who toiled for long hours on the farm and factory.
Whitman pioneered the development of a uniquely American literature by first breaking with all convention and writing in "free verse." No rhymes, no meter, no structure. In his famous opening lines to the poem "Song of Myself," he announces a new vision of humanity, declaring the individual soul to be supreme and united with all of humanity at once:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
Whitman is noted for breaking with tradition on matters involving the body and sexuality. In an age of Victorian prudery, where people put covers on piano legs so they wouldn't be naked, Whitman was outspoken about celebrating the body in all its beauty. For this, he faced the wrath of censors and was fired from several jobs. Even the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, who proclaimed Leaves of Grass the best literature to be produced yet from America, told Whitman to tone down his sexual content. In an era where homosexuality was never, ever mentioned, Whitman's writing is all the more revolutionary for his time.
7. Retain hope.
Whitman saw his American experiment undergo a traumatic Civil War. His heart was devastated by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As he wrote, "The underlying principles of the United States are not honestly believed in, nor is humanity itself believed in." Yet he still fiercely retained his hope and conviction that America would vanquish her problems and become the shining democratic star he had prophesied.
These first two months with the Odyssey have forced me to think about American history in so many ways and to make the connections of the past with the present. I've seen desperate poverty in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, witnessed Indians fighting for their right to fish the almost-extinct salmon in Seattle, and experienced a depressing presidential election with two mediocre candidates who half the American people didn't bother to vote for. It's very easy for me to wallow in depression because my country has not fulfilled it's promises of liberty and justice for all, but reading Whitman's stirring poetic words this week has taught me not to give in to despair. As he reminds us, "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."
Using the above as a handy guide, you too can make your own poetic contributions to America and maybe if you're lucky, you too could have a mall or school named after you!
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick - Sold into hell