What Words, Walt Whitman, For Election Day?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The poet Ezra Pound called Walt Whitman America's poet. He is America.
JUAN WILLIAMS: (Reading) Take my leaves, America, take them. South, take them north. Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own offspring. Surround them east and west for they would surround you. And you, presidents, connect lovingly with them, for they connect lovingly with you.
HANSEN: That was NPR's Juan Williams reading a passage from Walt Whitman's poem, "Starting from Paumanok." And what better time to celebrate the words of Whitman than now. Soon, the presidential campaign will be behind us. Whoever takes up office in the White House will face innumerable challenges. Here to reflect on this time of change is poet E. Ethelbert Miller, a regular guest. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Welcome back, Ethelbert.
Professor E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Director, African-American Resources Center, Howard University): Oh, it's very good to see you.
HANSEN: Nice to see you, too. You've actually written a passage on Whitman's poetry. Would like to read just a brief bit of it?
Prof. MILLER: Sure.
(Reading) The day after our national election for president, one will be able to go outside and hear America singing. No matter who wins, our nation will continue to move forward and meet its challenges. The poetry of Walt Whitman is what can keep us warm as we prepare for another political season. Whitman's poetry is salvatory, expressing the joy of our bodies but also the beauty of this land, America. Whitman once wrote, I celebrate myself and sing myself and what I assume, you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
HANSEN: A passage from the poem "Song of Myself," read by E. Ethelbert Miller. What about this poem and Whitman made you connect his words to the presidential campaign?
Prof. MILLER: Well, some people called Whitman the poet of democracy. And how many people were coming out, you know, to vote for the first time. I was looking at a new generation. And, you know, Whitman saw our country in transformation. And he also saw an America then which he could embrace.
If you look at Walt Whitman's poetry, it's the long line which I feel is very inclusive. And, you know, when you look at how he connects to not just other people, but to nature, he is the type of work we need to be reading right now. So no matter how we might break down as we had - did in the past between blue and red states, Whitman sees us all as one.
HANSEN: For every atom belonging to me as good, belongs to you, a wonderful sentiment. How might Walt Whitman characterize these elections in his poetry?
Prof. MILLER: Well, I think he would be very excited because we are voting. You know, he was a strong advocate of voting. So I see that as being key. I guess he would probably resonate with someone saying Joe the Plummer because when you look at his work, he identifies almost every type of worker, you know? So, I could see Whitman happy that we've given visibility to the people who make up this country.
HANSEN: You've highlighted another Whitman passage in your essay. Read it for us and explain why you chose it.
Prof. MILLER: (Reading) Do I contradict myself? Very well that I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.
HANSEN: That could be a metaphor for the country as well as the poet.
Prof. MILLER: Right, right. I mean, you know, when you look at our differences, you know, and this is the thing people will tell you. Everyone's not going to agree, OK? You know, we could probably always disagree, maybe, on abortion. But, we can still hold on to this thing that we have in common, you see. That there's still places to disagree. There's still that contradiction, not only within ourselves sometimes, not only within our families, OK? But also within our community, and still America is wide enough to bring everybody together.
We saw this, for example, in terms of the lead-in to the World Series, where they had both candidates reading quotes dealing with baseball. So, you know, here's McCain. Here's Obama. Well, baseball, that's - that'll hold people together. I mean, that's something that's very American that, you know, even - you know, you can watch this game, and you realize you can root for different teams, but you root for the game, and you enjoy it.
HANSEN: We've been talking about poetry and politics with poet E. Ethelbert Miller. He chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and is director of the African-American Resources Center at Howard University. Thanks for coming back again.
Prof. MILLER: Oh, it's always good to see you.
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