July 4, 2009

A Poetic Fourth of July

In no less a place than Brooklyn, Walt Whitman published the first edition of a book of poems titled Leaves of Grass in July 4, 1855. It was the work of a lifetime, one he continued to refine and republish until his death in 1892. Exuberant, sensual, political, intellectual, Leaves of Grass created a bit of a scandal for it's free-form verse, it's frank language celebrating the human body and it's embrace of a new American identity -- inclusive across cultural and economic divisions -- that projected a revolutionary vision of citizenship, selfhood, and populace that is still with us today.

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 of beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves
off work;...
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.
One of the most famous poems from the collection is Song of Myself, where Whitman inhabits the lives of people he sees on the street, and imagines a fluid connection between their consciousness and his, effectively demonstrating how we are all one.

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I grew up celebrating the Fourth of July as a day of remembrance for my ancestors who were not free, though they were as central to the creation of America as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. We barbecued, we played games, and we oohed at the fireworks, but we also raised our lemonade glasses to Great Grandma Mee, a sharecroppers daughter and the first generation born free. My parents talked about participating in the March on Washington, on hearing MLK Jr speak, on having friends who went on Freedom Rides and came home, irrevocably changed by what they had seen and experienced.

My mom introduced me to Whitman. I first read Leaves of Grass as a smarty-pants junior high school kid, which should tell you a little bit about my social life in those days. I didn't really understand all of it, but the words and ideas spoke to me in some essential way. With repeated reading and thought, there are passages that have grown in meaning for me that today I find transcendent.

This is from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme—myself disintegrated,
every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—
on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others....

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,
I was refresh'd;

Leaves of Grass has become part of my personal Fourth of July celebration, a way for me to feel connected to a holiday that for a long time I viewed as bittersweet. So much of what I take for granted in my modern, American, daily life is there because a person, or a group of people, made it so. Often with great trial and tribulation and sacrifice. The notion that we can inhabit each other's experience and thereby be refreshed, renewed and more willing to recognize ourselves in them, and they in ourselves, is awesome.

However you celebrate the holiday, make room for a little poetry in your day. After all, it is the expression of a grand idea in a few small words that heralded the founding of this nation and that continues to inspire new ideas of all that makes America. Happy Fourth of July!

-- persuede.etsy.com

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