Friday, September 17, 2010
I Hear America Singing, Still
My junior English class was taught by a wild woman. She was tall, flamboyant, and given to theatrical gestures and outbursts. Everything about her was an exaggeration. She made no secret of what she believed to be the greatest work of American literature ever published – Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. (No one in the class took that seriously, not even the people who hated to read.)
One good thing (there were others) that she did was to introduce us to American poetry. I can still remember her standing in front of the class, wearing lots of large, colorful, flowing scarf-like dresses, and reading poetry, especially that of Walt Whitman, whose work often seemed to fit her flamboyance. (She often wore turbans, too, that matched her flowing clothes.) She’d read – and often act – poems like this one:
I Hear America Singing
By 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
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.
With a nod to Whitman, and for the sheer creativity and inventiveness he brought to poetry, I would submit this (I should probably offer apologies, too):
I Hear America Singing, Still
I hear America singing still, songs
both shallow and deep; not the
songs by Whitman sung, less bursting
with manifest confidence, more a
timidity of tentativeness, as if we have
walked into a room of no lights, no windows,
no mirrors to reflect, only darkness, darkness
to experience, darkness to feel our way forward.
I hear the songs of the Greek choir, as they beckon
us to Odysseus’s rocks; the songs of the preacher
preaching a revival of prosperity, as if naming gave
you a claiming right. Those songs, too, join the exodus
of the deafening songs, the roaring songs, the songs of
steam and noise and bellows and gears and furnaces
and fires as they escape into a silence
made in China.
Only two songs heard now, only two: the distant yet
approaching, small but consuming song of the prairie
fire, the song of destructive lament; and the light trill of
the sailing, soaring dove, the song of undeserved hope.
A bit dark, perhaps; I’ve been paying to much attention to government and politics lately.
This poem about a poem I know is connected to today’s Random Act of Poetry (RAP) over at the High Calling Blogs. I have a short article and prompt posted, for next week’s RAP (I’m subbing for our usual RAPster, L.L. Barkat). The prompt is based on a recent experience I had after tweeting a Poem of the Day, “Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Take a look and join in.