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Walt is Out There

November 11, 2008 | 3 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I'm 17 years old, a high school senior and in love with poetry. Most countries have national epics — Virgil's Aeneid, The Divine Comedy — and the United States has four prose epics — Huck Finn, Gatsby, Moby Dick, and The Grapes of Wrath — but no proper official epic poem. My question is, what gives? Why are we turning our backs on Walt Whitman? Song of Myself is America.

How can we get Song of Myself the recognition it deserves? What do you think? Worth it? Needful, even?

Sarah W.
Germantown, MD


The only recognition that Walt wanted was to be read, Sarah, so you've gratified his ghost already, and we have no idea how many others are reading him right now. It's a big mystery. He's in every library in America and in bookstores and on the Internet and if you Google "Song of Myself" it pops right up.

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 loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

I suppose you can promote Walt by putting on a public reading of "Song of Myself" there in Maryland. You could make a Walt float for the 4th of July parade. You could print out lines from the poem and leave them in waiting rooms and on buses. You could hire a skywriting plane to write "I stop somewhere waiting for you" in a clear blue sky. But Walt is out there, waiting for readers, and I'm sure they're finding him. I don't know that he needs a vast crowd of readers — he might rather be loved by a few thousand than be casually scanned by a million. But do be aware that some people cannot STAND "Song of Myself" and think it's the biggest burst of flatulence in all of American literature. So expect some resistance.


Sarah and Garrison,

Admittedly, I am a scientist and I see the world as a continuum and fail to appreciate this need for taxonomy, for putting things in little boxes simply for the desire to make our world tidy. Where do we draw the line between poetry to prose or jazz and rock-n-roll? Why do we need to draw such lines? And, as a scholar of Strunk and White, I challenge the notion that length alone adds any substantive quality to a work of writing (or song). If you are looking for great American epics, look to some modern writers beyond even Angelou, Morrison, and Hurston. I urge you to look to Brothers K (David Duncan), Education of Little Tree (Forest Carter), and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) if you favor the flavor prose and The Country or Lanyard (Billy Collins) if you favor the flavor poetry, and The Pilgrim and Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard) if you can't make up your mind.

I agree with Garrison, the only honor Walt or any author desires is to be read. So lets not dicker over how to categorize our favorite writings, lets simply encourage others to read our favorites.

Todd Walter
Lansing, NY

I'm about to teach "Song of Myself" to my college juniors and seniors next week. I am having them watch part of the American Experience program that NPR produced a while back (which is available at Whitman is a challenge, but one worth tackling. Most Americans like their literature bite-sized, all trimmed and even sized. . . Whitman refuses to be sliced and diced or canned for popular consumption. He resists readers even as he wanted them. . .that is what poetry does, makes us work to understand so that gaining that understanding becomes so much sweeter.

Garrison, that response was f*cked up. Funny as all hell... but f*cked up.

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