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The National Poet we need now.


“CHANT ME THE POEM,” the muse said to Walt Whitman on the bank of Lake Ontario,

“that comes from the soul of America, chant me the carol of victory,
And strike up the marches of Libertad, marches more powerful yet,
And sing me before you go the song of the throes of Democracy.”

It is a typically Whitmanian sentiment, overflowing with patriotism and optimism and love of democracy, written with his typical pulsing urgency. It’s classic Whitman at work in these lines, and it’s not hard to see from them why we (Americans) like to claim him as our national poet.

The American NoteWe like the way he casually addresses us and includes our experiences in his writing:

“These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing.” 

We like the way he reaches out to us across the decades:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.”

We even like his overwhelming egotism (maybe we see something of our own in it):

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I shall assume you shall assume.”

We love him and respect him, and his writing feels modern and healthy and accessible. And yet it is painfully clear that we would never tolerate—let alone love—a Whitman writing today.

Our affection for him builds until it’s clear: we love him and respect him, and his writing feels modern and healthy and accessible. And yet it is painfully clear that we would never tolerate—let alone love—a Whitman writing today. It isn’t just that such egotism chafes when there isn’t a century and a half of separation, though that’s undoubtedly true; it’s that we can no longer accept the sort of blind optimism that Whitman employed. He did not, in his poetry, entirely ignore our various national sins (the most prominent of which was, obviously, slavery), but he offered only brief sympathy and disapproval before coasting onward; in no way did those sins seem to lower his estimate of America. Thus he writes

“And that to-day is what it must be, and that America is,
And that to-day and America could no-how be better than they are.”

We’re finally waking up from that delusion—or maybe we’ve been slowly waking up since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but we’re wide awake now, and we’ve had our coffee. America need not be what it is right now: police brutality, mass incarceration, income inequality, rampant racism and sexism—these things are not somehow necessary parts of our “to-day.” We’re ready to go, to change things, and as much as it pains me to admit it, we need a bard other than Whitman to help us on our way.

I PROPOSE WE bring Claudia Rankine along instead. I’m hardly the first to suggest this—she’s a winner of the National Book Award and the MacArthur “genius grant.” But it seems to me that her writing, and especially her Citizen: An American Lyric, is an appropriate extension into the twenty-first century of the Whitmanian tradition of poetry for democracy.

To be sure, Citizen hardly shares the optimism of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s magnum opus. It offers a much darker view of America and America’s people, one in which an omnipresent, often subconscious racism tarnishes almost every interaction. Rankine’s primary focus is on the psychological effects of this incessant low-level violence, the unending little slights and oversights that wear on those who don’t look like me or Walt Whitman, who don’t fit the Anglo-European ideal that somehow prevails all these centuries after 1776. “You are you,” she writes,

“even before you
grow into understanding you
are not anyone, worthless
not worth you
Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.”

Times have changed since Whitman sang “the body electric,” sang the pulsing weight of existence; now fully half of our population has ancestors from somewhere other than western Europe, and the old normal of denying our national flaws, or excusing them as inevitable as Whitman did, can no longer prevail.

He was just the voice America needed in its earlier years, a voice for people to rally around, a poet who claimed the value of American life and culture at a time when many denied it as inferior to Europe. He sang about the wonders of the West, the value of diversity, the legitimacy of democracy at a time when many people doubted all of those.

But we don’t doubt them so much anymore. We’ve embraced Whitman’s causes, but we’ve remained largely blind to the same most base failing that eluded him: our deeply-embedded racism, so much a part of our country’s way of being that we—those of us lucky enough not to be on the receiving end of it—can’t always even see it.

Rankine asks, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”

Rankine writes with the same urgency we admire in Whitman, but with more insight and perhaps more desperation.

Difficult, it seems—but not impossible, and not optional. We need to feel that injustice; we need to know our flaws if we hope to correct them. Rankine knows this, and through the sheer force of her words, she is passing the pain and the struggle along to us, if perhaps in a diluted form. She writes with the same urgency we admire in Whitman, but with more insight and perhaps more desperation. She describes moments in lives in much the same way that Whitman did, but without the clean gloss of distance. Thus she writes of driving with a friend who “tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” She describes being cut in line at a grocery store:

O my God, I didn’t see you
You must be in a hurry, you offer
No, no, no I really didn’t see you.”

She tells us, with so little poetic cushion that you can’t hide from it or ignore it:

Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.”

What is wrong with you? The question gets stuck in your dreams.”

Rankine was writing about her own experience, asking herself why she didn’t speak up when she was insulted, why she didn’t fight back. But it seems to me that it’s also the question of the moment for this country, the country that just elected Mr. Trump, and it’s now stuck in the American dream. What is wrong with us?

We had Whitman to tell us what was right with us, but now our national ego outweighs even his, and we need Rankine to bring us back down to earth, to ground us and guide us. “Poets are not legislators,” Louis MacNeice once wrote, “but they put facts and feelings in italics, which makes people think about them and such thinking may in the end have an end in action.”

And thus, once more, Rankine: “You want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.” These are feelings in italics if ever they’ve existed. Here’s hoping that in 2017 they lead to thinking and, in turn, to action.

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. Her previous note, on the American ‘coloring book’ craze, is here.

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