Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Hear America Singing - Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I have no patience for Walt Whitman's idealized song of America.  Do you not hear the song of the oppressed?  Of the immigrant crushed beneath the cities of the age?  Of the tens of thousands of slaves still held at the time of the poem's composition?  It's saccharine and trite to suggest that America is a song without dissonance.

I have no trouble imagining America as a song, but to suggest that it is purely "melodious," particularly in 1860, is insulting.  Dissonance enriches music, making it complex, full bodied, and stimulating.  Walt Whitman seems not to hear that oppressed mass of America's voices, crushed by institutionalized racism, or the poverty that plagued many northern cities.  What America do you hear, Walt Whitman?  The wealthy America that can afford to gallivant about in the woods, the America that can play at poet frontiersman.  Your America sings poorly.

1 comment:

  1. Follow with Langston Hughes's I,Too, Sing America. He must have felt the same way you do about Whitman.