Happy Earth Day everyone! I have been thinking about what poem I should post today that would be appropriate for the occasion and I have selected “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. There is something so organic about Whitman’s poem that seemed fitting for today, as did its theme of how connected we are to each other and to the Earth.
It’s a long a poem so rather than post the whole thing here, I am simply going to link to it. But I wanted to post a few thoughts.
First of all, it’s a gorgeous day here on Long Island (where Walt Whitman was born) and if I had my choice, I would be leaning and loafing on the lawn outside the house where Walt Whitman was born, observing a spear of grass and reading Leaves of Grass there.
Secondly, I want to acknowledge the fact that even if you haven’t read this poem before, you probably have heard at least one phrase from it before. It featured rather prominently in one of my favorite movies, The Dead Poet Society.
I have watched this movie so many times and love this scene so much that when I took a poetry class recently and the professor asked my class if we knew what Walt Whitman looked like, the first thing that came to my mind was a “sweat-y toothed mad man.” I can practically recite Todd’s poem from memory.
But mostly, I just wanted to talk about what makes this poem so great (at least in my opinion) and why I think it is such a great poem for Earth Day. Like I said, there is a real organic feeling to this poem. Whitman literally connects us to each other and the Earth on a molecular level. While Carl Sagan (or Joni Mitchell) may claim that we are starstuff, Whitman sees our origins as being much closer to home.
“My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.”
Whitman is not the first to claim that man is formed from the dust and to the dust will return but he is the first (that I know of) that can make that a positive, if not joyful thing, stating:
“The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it”
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.”
It is clear to see in this poem that Whitman has a love affair with nature – throwing himself into an embrace with trees and rivers and the outdoors. There are so many great quotes and songs about nature and our planet but for me, the best thing I can think of to say comes from Uncle Walt.
“Have you practiced so long to learn to read? Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems? Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are millions of suns left, You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. 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.”