July 4: On Poetry, Independence and Connectedness (and Whitman)

The poem I wrote in response to the Somme Offensive generated some kind and supportive responses, in person if not on the blog.  (I hope you'll respond to the comments section below with your thoughts!)  Not surprisingly, one of those comments was from my mom, who would put the poem on her fridge if she could.  That's as it should be, I guess.  A writer needs support and encouragement.  But I know the poem is a draft and I know how it can be stronger yet, that it can communicate and connect more clearly and effectively.  And the idea of connectiveness calls me to write on Independence Day.

My poetry students get into writing, as we all do, I guess, because of the expressive aspect of writing.  They have ideas, emotions, experiences and they want to express those things to themselves, to their journals, snapchat, facebook, class, the rest of the world outside their heads.  And perhaps that's where a draft begins, too. We say "I just had to get that out!" as though out and in are different.  That's all fine, but if expression is where a poem stops, then it's not really a poem, for the poems that really work, those that reach us so that we read them again and again because they tell us something true, are poems that connect.   I think that's what we're up to from the very beginning of any artistic utterance, and the connecting part is the craft.  

In "I Hear America Singing" (one of his shorter poems), nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman works explicitly to connect seeming differing elements of America into a whole--E Pluribus Unum, if you will: out of many, one.  In general, that's what a poem should do, show us how our varied experiences are really part of the human experience and how that one individual experience is really universal.

I Hear America Singing

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.

--Walt Whitman

If you wish a more contemporary poet (though, somehow, Whitman always seems contemporary), consider Richard Blanco's poem for President Obama's 2012 inauguration, "One Today."  You can watch it here on youtube.