My fellow Americans:
I know there are few words less redolent of Democracy than poetry. What is poetry, after all, but language at its highest pitch, words in their most mysterious register, men wearing pretentiously elaborate scarves. Poetry is exclusive, for if it were truly democratic it would be straightforward; it would say what it meant.
Not in America, or at least the one I read in. We live in a country of populist poetry as well as poetry for poetry’s sake, where poets don’t only come from the academy but from farms and coal-mining towns and city streets. All the noise and music of this great heaving muchness can be felt in the best American poetry, and the reason why has a lot to do with Walt Whitman’s great “Leaves of Grass.’’
If the Constitution is the bedrock of our law, then “Leaves of Grass” is the originating soil for our secular dreamscape. Its long prosy lines and riffing, ecstatic self-expression are the sound of a writer talking his way into existence. I am Walt Whitman, it announces, “an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.”
Over the next 800 or so lines Whitman remakes the sound of American poetry by using the sound of American speech. It is a democratic melody, deliberately high-low, vernacular, open to all, word-drunk and body-drunk at the same time. Its aesthetics and its politics are one. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Elections are so contentious it’s easy to forget that democracy isn’t just about the will of the people; it’s about their voice. As in: We participate in democracy because we believe everyone should have a voice in America. Out of that belief comes a larger project: to take our great masses and make us all, in some way, better than individuals. And yet the premise of democracy begins with the individual.
Managing these apparent contradictions requires a kind of political negative capability that only the most poetic presidents have been able to manage. Barack Obama, in his early speeches had it, as did Clinton, and Kennedy, and, of course, the president Whitman adored and mourned in his great poem, “O Captain, My Captain,” Abraham Lincoln.
One of the many wondrous things about Whitman is that this role — being the nation’s bard — was self-appointed. He was not a court record keeper like LaoTzu, or friend to emperors like Horace.
Before he published “Leaves of Grass” Whitman had the kind of life that today would end in either obscurity or a wildly successful self-help career. He ended his formal schooling early and plied himself at the printer’s trade, became a reporter, a publisher, a teacher, and finally, after failing at all of the above, set out to become a poet.
Whitman deliberately modeled the verse of “Leaves of Grass” on the Bible, for he believed he was creating a spiritual epic for a new America. No one, it should be said, was asking for such a thing. Whitman sensed, however, that it was needed and so paid for his own publication. About 800 copies of the first edition rolled off the press. He was 36 and spent the rest of his life expanding it.
It took us more than another 100 years to deprogram the inhumanity inscribed in our Constitution — that all men are created equal, if they are white — but if you count literature and poetry as part of our DNA, Whitman had it fixed in about half that time.
In “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman recognized that the essence of democracy is in fact biological. We are animal, first and foremost, and this — more than our belief in democracy — makes us equal. If the next week gets you down, open the book and the sound of this song will tune your mood.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’