|Original hand-written copy of "O Captain, My Captain."|
At the end of each semester at Trine University, I take my students out into the courtyard for our “good-bye” as in Dead Poets Society. They all know it is coming as it is on the Syllabus and I speak of it frequently; yet when it is storming or snowing or sleeting, there is much complaining…of course! Actually I love it most of all when the weather is adverse!
I stand in the middle of them reciting their send-off with poetry. (And, no, it does not matter which class I teach…they all get the poetry.) I fling my arms out as I recite Shakespeare’s King Lear, “Blow winds, blow!” Or “I felt a funeral in my brain,” by Emily Dickinson. As I continue into my foray of poems, the students are polite, interested, and I think they know this moment will not come again. No moments ever come again. The last poem is Walt Whitman’s, “O Captain, My Captain.” By this time, I am usually in tears. Maybe it is letting them go, or the wind that circles around in the courtyard, or even the snow or rain that pummels down on us. Or is it the moving words of the poetry?
Yesterday was the 200th birthday anniversary of Walt Whitman. How could I possibly let this go by without sharing words and thoughts about him? Do you know Whitman? His life? His poetry? You are about to find out! Listen in…
Whitman was born in West Hills, New York on May 31, 1819. He was the second child of eight into a family owning a large piece of land which was sold off. He watched his father struggle through the years with farming, carpentry and sundry other jobs. Whitman was plucked out of school at age 11 to help his family with the income. He was an office boy for a Brooklyn attorney. Interestingly enough, without an education, he became a teacher in Long Island at age 17, but, by now, knew journalism was his calling.
He left New York in 1848 to become editor of a small newspaper in New Orleans, the Crescent, but quit in less than three months and went home. He continued with odd jobs, all-the-while keeping a small notebook with his thoughts and ideas. In 1855 he self-published his collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. It was a radical political piece at the time. (Note: in 1870 copies of the book sold at auction for $2. In 2014, a surviving copy sold for $305,000.)
The Civil War took a toll on Whitman. His brother, George, was wounded, and the nation was in disarray. Whitman volunteered his time visiting wounded soldiers. Record keeping in Washington, D.C. logged more than 80,000 patients. He wrote, O Captain, My Captain to eulogize Abraham Lincoln.
Whitman was one of America’s first democratic poets celebrating life in America. We learned, or at least heard this poem, in school, “I Sing of America.” The first line says, I hear America Singing, the varied carols I hear. Whitman knew it was his job, his responsibility as a poet to write about the fate of the nation and those forgotten. I think we could use a little Whitman today.
He was so popular in New York that they began to publish the status of his health on the front pages of The New York Times. They wrote what he ate, how he felt, what his physicians said about him. He died on March 26, 1892 leaving behind his expanded version of Leaves of Grass and so many other poems we all love. He is considered to be a groundbreaking poet of American Society on culture and politics.
I am ecstatic on this day of his anniversary. The sun is shining. My garden is growing. But what can I do, or should do, to celebrate and remember this poet in my own life?
After a long talk with a guy named Shaun in New York, and one click of the Etsy button, I am now the proud owner of a 1963 Emerald Green Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter with an extra ribbon. This is a combination birthday present to myself and a celebration of poetry, and I will love it!
And you, my friend, will see me sitting on the square typing out poems for you. Stop by, let me write you a poem or let’s chat about anything.
Let’s keep America singing. It is our job. I will do my part…how about you?