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Saturday, December 29, 2007


So why is America ambivalent about Whitman?

by June Jordan

This essay has been excerpted and reprinted from the book Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan (Copyright © 2002 by June Jordan). This essay in its entirety, and more poetry by Walt Whitman and June Jordan, are available on To learn more about June Jordan, see

At home as a child, I learned the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. As a student, I diligently followed orthodox directions from The Canterbury Tales right through The Wasteland. And I kept waiting. It was, I thought, all right to deal with daffodils in the 17th century of an island as much like Manhattan as I resemble Queen Mary. But what about Dunbar? And where were the Black poets, altogether? And who were the women poets I might reasonably emulate? And wasn't there, ever, a great poet who was crazy about Brooklyn or furious about war? And I kept waiting.

But I didn't know about Walt Whitman. Yes, I had heard about this bohemian, but nobody ever told me to read his work! Not only was Whitman not required reading, he was, on the contrary, presented as a rather hairy buffoon suffering from a childish proclivity for exercise and open air.
As a matter of fact, if you hope to hear about Whitman your best bet is to leave home. Ignore prevailing American criticism and, instead, ask anybody anywhere else in the world this question: As Shakespeare is to England, Dante to Italy, Tolstoy to Russia, Goethe to Germany, who is the great American writer, the distinctively American poet, the giant American "literatus?" Undoubtedly, the answer will be Walt Whitman.

He is the poet who wrote:

A man's body at auction
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale.)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business. . .
Gentlemen look on this wonder.
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it.

I ask you, today: Who in the United States would publish those lines? They are all wrong! There is nothing obscure, nothing contrived, nothing an ordinary strap-hanger in the subway would be puzzled by! This can't be poetry! Besides, these lines apparently serve an expressly moral purpose! Then is this didactic/political writing? Aha! This cannot be good poetry. And, in fact, you will never see, for example, The New Yorker Magazine publishing a poem marked by such splendid deficiencies.

Whitman conjured up a poetry of America, a poetry of democracy which would not "mean the smooth walks, trimm'd hedges, poseys and nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb, with its geologic history, the Kosmos, carrying fire and snow that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather, though weighing billions of tons."

Well, what happened?

Whitman went ahead and wrote the poetry demanded by his vision. He became, by thousands upon thousands of words, a great American poet:

It avails not, time nor place--distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever some many generations hence,
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,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet
hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the
thick-stemm'd pipes of steamboats,
I look'd. . .

This great American poet of democracy as cosmos, this poet of a continent as consciousness, this poet of the many people as one people, this poet of diction comprehensible to all, of a vision insisting on each, of a rhythm/a rhetorical momentum to transport the reader from the Brooklyn ferry into the hills of Alabama and back again, of line after line of bodily, concrete detail that constitutes the mysterious the cellular tissue of a nation indivisible but dependent upon and astonishing in its diversity, this white father of a great poetry deprived of its spontaneous popularity/a great poetry hidden away from the ordinary people it celebrates so well, he has been, again and again, cast aside as an undisciplined poseur, a merely freak eruption of prolix perversities.

I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman. And I am not by myself struggling to tell the truth about this history of so much land and so much blood, of so much that should be sacred and so much that has been desecrated and annihilated boastfully.

My brothers and my sisters of this New World, we remember that, as Whitman said,

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate
itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize

We do not apologize that we are not Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. Or, as Whitman exclaimed, "I exist as I am, that is enough."

June Jordan (1936-2002) was an influential poet, playwright, children's author and teacher. For more information see

© 2002 by June Jordan. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

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