Friday, September 17, 2010

I Hear America Singing, Still

When I attended high school, the English curriculum was rather fixed. Ninth grade was introduction to British and American literature. Tenth grade was introduction to world literature, although we studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that year. Junior year was American literature in depth. And senior year was British literature in depth, although the administration got rather daring that year and required that one six-week period be devoted to a masterpiece of non-English literature, which is how I met Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.

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
he stands,
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.


Louise Gallagher said...

Glynn, your poem is powerful...

and um, you might want to cut back on all that attention you're giving to government and politics...

the news is bleak and life is always calling us to Rise UP!

and that's hard to do when we're immersed in the gloom of media's songs trials and tribulations, woes and worries.

I do like your poem -- it is quite brilliant.

H. Gillham said...

Groan. Walt Whitman. As a high school English teacher, I could never get too excited about Mr. Whitman, but I loved his exuberance for America. As he walked about this country as a young man, he did see us in such a good light. You have to be aware of the "filter" that he wore even at the time. Whitman was "high" on being alive -- that part of him is to be appreciated.

Whitman's best stuff, however, in my humble opinion, came from his experience as a nurse for the Union during the Civil War .. those poems have a lasting poignancy -- my favorite -- "A Sight at Daybreak, Gray and Dim."
Check it out sometime.

BTW: I still love your poetry response to Whitman's poem and your dubious tribute to your English teacher. I LOL at her comment about VOTD.

Watching the news is a downer -- watching the sunrise -- not at all. Check out the photos at my blog when you have a chance...

Thanks for being an inspiration to me each morning -- I love your musings.


H. Gillham said...

ETA: That would be "A Sight at Camp at Daybreak, Gray and Dim."

Not that it matters with the Internet -- LOL.

It gnawed at me not to have it correct.


Sorry. Too many cups of jave.

H. Gillham said...


I'm really done now.

Anonymous said...

This is sad, Glynn, and dark. But I really like it. And I'm glad you can still hear hope singing. :)

Maureen said...

I can't profess to favor Walt Whitman. I do, however, like some of Whitman's words, such as those inscribed on the surrounding walls of an entrance/exit at the Dupont Circle metro station in D.C. They deal with war.

I especially like in your poem "a silence/made in China"; also the phrase "timidity of tentativeness".

I give you extra points for you nod to Whitman. His is a voice that's not easily reflected.

HisFireFly said...

Well done indeed Glynn, and I think I would have loved your teacher too!

HisFireFly said...

My post is up - honouring Robert Frost, I hope...

Maureen said...

My link:

RissaRoo said...

Late to the party, but saw this the morning I dusted off a poem and had to respond anyway:

Unknown said...

Glynn, M.L. used "Rise UP!" in her comment in response to government and politics.

Have you ever seen/heard this Bruce Springsteen song, "My City in Ruins"?

It was written, I believe, for New Orleans after Katrina, but I bet you could imagine it referring to any area of life where you see, or at least perceive, troubles. This isn't to say that America is in ruins, of course, but all things could use the creative, renewing power of God toward healing.

The song gives me chills.

"C'mon, Rise UP!"

SimplyDarlene said...


Dare I say yours is better?

Because it ends in undeserved hope, hinting at God's gracious gift of salvation.


L.L. Barkat said...

Like Maureen, I favored this...

"they escape into a silence
made in China"

Just something about it.

I love your RAP work. Makes me strongly consider retiring. :)