New Film Project Features Citizens of Alabama Reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a Poetic Embodiment of Democratic Ideals

In times of nation­al anx­i­ety, many of us take com­fort in the fact that the U.S. has endured polit­i­cal crises even more severe than those at hand. His­to­ry can be a teacher and a guide, and so too can poet­ry, as Walt Whit­man reminds us again and again. Whit­man wit­nessed some of the great­est upheavals and rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes the coun­try has ever expe­ri­enced: the Civ­il War and its after­math, the assas­si­na­tion of Abra­ham Lin­coln, the fail­ure of Recon­struc­tion, the mas­sive indus­tri­al­iza­tion of the coun­try at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry.…

Per­haps this is why we return to Whit­man when we make what crit­ics call a “poet­ic turn.” His expan­sive, mul­ti­va­lent verse speaks for us when beau­ty, shock, or sad­ness exceed the lim­its of every­day lan­guage. Whit­man con­tained the nation’s war­ring voic­es, and some­how rec­on­ciled them with­out dilut­ing their unique­ness. This was, indeed, his lit­er­ary mis­sion, to “cre­ate a uni­fied whole out of dis­parate parts,” argues Karen Swal­low Pri­or at The Atlantic. “For Whit­man, poet­ry wasn’t just a vehi­cle for express­ing polit­i­cal lament; it was also a polit­i­cal force in itself.” Poetry’s impor­tance as a bind­ing agent in the frac­tious, frag­ile coali­tion of states, meant that for Whit­man, the country’s “Pres­i­dents shall not be their com­mon ref­er­ee so much as their poets shall.”

Whit­man wrote as a gay man who, by the time he pub­lished the first edi­tion of Leaves of Grass in 1855, had gone from being an “ardent Free-Soil­er” to ful­ly sup­port­ing abo­li­tion. His poet­ry pro­claimed a “rad­i­cal­ly egal­i­tar­i­an vision,” writes Mar­tin Klam­mer, “of an ide­al, mul­tira­cial repub­lic.” A coun­try that was, itself, a poem. “The Unit­ed States them­selves are essen­tial­ly the great­est poem,” wrote Whit­man in his pref­ace. The nation’s con­tra­dic­tions inhab­it us just as we inhab­it them. The only way to resolve our dif­fer­ences, he insist­ed, is to embody them ful­ly, with open­ness toward oth­er peo­ple and the nat­ur­al world. Under­stand­ing Whitman’s mis­sion makes film­mak­er Jen­nifer Crandall’s project Whit­man, Alaba­ma all the more poignant.

For two years, Cran­dall “criss­crossed this deep South­ern state, invit­ing peo­ple to look into a cam­era and share part of them­selves through the words of Walt Whit­man.” To the ques­tion “Who is Amer­i­can?,” Crandall—just as Whit­man before her—answers with a mul­ti­tude of voic­es, weav­ing in and out of a col­lab­o­ra­tive read­ing of the epic “Song of Myself,” begin­ning with 97-year-old Vir­ginia Mae Schmitt of Birm­ing­ham, at the top, who reads Whitman’s lines, “I, now thir­ty-sev­en years old in per­fect health begin / Hop­ing to cease not till death.” No one watch­ing the video, Cran­dall remarks, should ask, “Why isn’t’ a thir­ty-sev­en year old man read­ing this?” To do so is to ignore Whitman’s design for the uni­ver­sal in the par­tic­u­lar.

When Whit­man penned the first lines of “Song of Myself,” the coun­try had not yet “Unlimber’d” the can­nons “to begin the red busi­ness,” as he would lat­er write, but the 1850 Fugi­tive Slave Act had clear­ly lain the foun­da­tion for civ­il war. The poet­’s many revi­sions, addi­tions, and sub­se­quent edi­tions of Leaves of Grass after his first small run in 1855 con­tin­ued until his death in 1892. He was obsessed with the huge­ness and dynamism of the coun­try and its peo­ple, in their dark­est, blood­i­est moments and at their most flour­ish­ing. His vision lets every­one in, with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion, con­stant­ly rewrit­ing itself to meet new faces in the ever-chang­ing nation.

As Mari­am Jal­loh, a 14-year old Mus­lim girl from Guinea, recites in her short por­tion of the read­ing fur­ther up, “every atom belong­ing to me as good belongs to you.” Jol­lah quite lit­er­al­ly makes Whitman’s lan­guage her own, trans­lat­ing into her native Fulani the line, “If they are not just as close as they are dis­tant, they are noth­ing.” Jal­loh “may seem like a sur­pris­ing con­duit for the writ­ing of Whit­man, a long-dead queer social­ist poet from Brook­lyn,” writes Chris­t­ian Kerr at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “but such incon­gruity is the active agent in Whit­man, Alaba­ma’s ther­a­peu­tic salve.” It is also, Whit­man sug­gest­ed, the matrix of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy.

See more read­ings from the project above from Lau­ra and Bran­don Reed­er of Cull­man, the Sul­li­van fam­i­ly of Mobile, and by Demetrius Leslie and Fred­er­ick George, and Patri­cia Mar­shall and Tam­my Coop­er, inmates at mens’ and wom­ens’ pris­ons in Mont­gomery. Whitman’s voice winds through these bod­ies and voic­es, set­tling in, find­ing a home, then, rest­less, mov­ing on, invit­ing us all to join in the cho­rus, yet also—in its con­trar­i­an way—telling us to find our own paths. “You shall no longer take things at sec­ond or third hand.…,” wrote Whit­man, “nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spec­tres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall lis­ten to all sides and fil­ter them from your­self.”

Find many more read­ings at the Whit­man, Alaba­ma web­site. And stay tuned for new read­ings as they come online.

Also find works by Walt Whit­man on our lists of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Walt Whit­man Gives Advice to Aspir­ing Young Writ­ers: “Don’t Write Poet­ry” & Oth­er Prac­ti­cal Tips (1888)

Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Man­u­al, “Man­ly Health & Train­ing,” Urges Read­ers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plen­ty of Meat (1858)

The Civ­il War & Recon­struc­tion: A Free Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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