Archive for the ‘Walt Whitman’ Category

This past week I’ve heard stories of people not going home for Thanksgiving because they’re upset their relatives voted differently than they did.

no pissing match on Thanksgiving

no pissing match on Thanksgiving!


Add one more to the list of disheartening effects the 2016 election has had on our country. Thanksgiving is the holiday that’s supposed to bring us together. Thanksgiving is a holiday all Americans share regardless of faith, political beliefs, or economic status, a holiday only Mr. MacGoo might object to. It also happens to be my favorite one.


I hate to think of people alone and angry this day, nursing grudges or avoiding toxic situations.


So this Thanksgiving poem-elfing is for the divided dinner table. For the arguments narrowly avoided and the arguments that’ll erupt over the fifth bottle of wine. For old hurts and fresh injuries passed around with the potatoes, for the comments swallowed and the ones blurted out, for tongues bit and tongues wagged. But most of all for the love and gratitude that bring a group of people together to sit shoulder-to-shoulder and share food. This poem-elfing is for bridges over our divides and reinforcements for our connections.


And if you’re a family that sees eye-to-eye on all issues, all I can say is, Welcome to Planet Earth! Golly gee, alien life forms among us!


On to the elfing. I went to Costco and found it surprisingly easy, even among the hoards of shoppers, to leave poems in food displays with no one noticing.


I started with a wine glass where I left a quote, not a poem, by Rosseau.

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass


It’s a favorite of mine I may have quoted once or twice here in the past. I never tire of mulling this one over. Write it on your hand and read before opening your mouth.



My least favorite part of Thanksgiving is chopping onions. My eyes, like my nerves, are overly sensitive. So into the onion bin I put Mary Oliver’s brief “Uses of Sorrow.”

poem is on onion baton left-hand side

poem is on onion bag on left-hand side


It may takes me years to understand “this, too, was a gift.”



A display of pecan pies was a good spot for “While We Were Arguing” by Jane Kenyon.

poem is on middle pecan pie

poem is on middle pecan pie ingredient list


“’You see, we have done harm,’” she writes. Words to remember before you sit down for dinner.



Jane Kenyon also wrote what I consider the most perfect Thanksgiving poem. It’s called “Otherwise” and I balanced it on a turkey.


poem is on middle turkey


Gratitude takes perspective, and there’s no perspective as good as this: It might have been/ otherwise.



A wine called “Seven Deadly Zins” was tailor-made for an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”



Here’s the perfect response to any argument. Memorize it—it’s the very reason people can’t be reduced to who they voted for.



In my Costco shopping loop, I reached the flowers last, which is where I put Anne Porter’s “Looking at the Sky.” Another beautiful Thanksgiving poem.



I shall never have enough time, she writes. Praise and gratitude for the whatever you have.



Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am grateful for all of you, for your insightful comments and continued support for this project.


Bonus: if you need some music to dance to while you’re cooking, here’s a song I heard this morning, courtesy of DJ Blizzard Lizzard: Rock a Side Pony.













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poems are on tree branches

poems are on tree branches


Poem #1: Miracles

by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of

the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night

with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer


Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so

quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.


To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with

the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.


To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—

the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?




Poem #2: The Cigarette, the Beers, the Trash

by Alejandro Murguía


Everything is good for something

Even the trash, the ugly and the dirty,

What we throw away we can put in a poem,

Make art of our rejections, our defeats

All of it just grist for the mill of our songs.


It’s too bad that sometimes we want only the pretty,

That which makes us believe we’re saints, or holy,

Or some kind of artiste, for hell’s sake.


Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season

I’d rather go hungry than

Stuff my gills at some catered banquet

Where everyone is neutered by Martha Stewart.


Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.

I see abandoned cars, newspapers, a beer bottle

Propped up against a half-dead tree

And I’m going to put them in this poem

Because that’s all I’ve got tonight.


Then I’ll smoke a cigarette, stare at the night clouds,

Let the wind whip my face

And that’s it, at least I’ll know I didn’t cheat,

Didn’t fake what’s in my life.




We sat in the car waiting for a miracle. On that clear and cold March evening we had a chance, said the meteorologist, a small chance of seeing the Northern Lights at sundown. My friend and I had been waiting years to see the Northern Lights—she’s an ardent fan of extreme weather and starry phenomena, and I’m an ardent fan of the movie Local Hero, my introduction to the Northern Lights back in the early 80’s.


Sitting in a school parking lot, the widest open space we could come up with on short notice, we felt like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. As hope for the miraculous display dwindled, I dashed out in the wind to put these two poems in a tree by some athletic fields.


Even then, before I had read the two poems closely, “Miracles” and “The Cigarettes, the Beers, the Trash” seemed to be talking to each other on their respective tree branches.


–See the just-barely buds on these bare trees—said the Whitman poem—a miracle!

-Yeah but look down at how the snow melt’s uncovered trash, said the Murguía poem.

-The wind is tossing us about! Another miracle!

-That wind’s going turn you into trash.


Which it did, a moment after I took the picture.


Originally I paired the poems together together because they seemed opposites. Whitman’s poem is so cheerful it’s all but wearing a curly red wig and nuzzling a dog named Sandy. The tone of Murguía’s poem is decidedly less sunny:


Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.


But the poems have more in common than I thought at first.


Both poems start in the city. Whitman is in Manhattan, Murguía presumably in San Francisco. And even though Whitman travels from the city to beach, to woods, back to city and Murguía stays put, they’re both completely engaged with their surroundings. They see what others don’t.


Or maybe it’s not so much that they see what others overlook, as it is that they re-name what they see so that others can see things in a new way. Whitman re-names everything he sees a miracle, especially the everyday things: Strangers opposite me riding in the car; the wonderfulness of insects in the air.


Murguía, who sees the ugly and the dirty, calls his trash poetry. Or inspiration for poetry. His poem is like a recycling bin, full of discards that he finds new uses for. Like a poetic version of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.


Both poems are not just about seeing and re-naming, but also about the creation of self. In listing what he sees, Whitman creates a persona who is childlike, full of wonder. He’s the master of the artless art, of spontaneous expression of feeling, Murguía not only sees the underbelly of what Whitman sees, he wants to see the underbelly:


Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season


Seeing “what’s really there” separates the artistes from the artists, and Murguía is definitely in the artist camp. He’s proud of being authentic, of not having been neutered by Martha Stewart.


(Neutered by Martha Stewart. That’s a phrase to tuck away for future use. It would be a great bumper sticker and an even better support group. Overeaters Anonymous in room 12, Neutered by Martha Stewart across the hall.)


Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.05 PM I hadn’t heard of Alejandro Murguía until a friend gave me a book of his poems for my birthday last year. He was born in 1949 in California. After his mother died when he was two, he was moved to Mexico City, where he lived until he was six. He writes in both English and Spanish and has been called “the activist voice of refugees and exiles.” He’s written two novels, a history of the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement in San Francisco’s Mission District, two books of poetry. He’s professor of Latin American literature at San Francisco State University. In 2012 he was named the Poet Laureate for San Francisco, the first Latino poet to be given the honor.


Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.33 PMWalt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island to a family of nine. At various times throughout his life, he worked as a journalist, a newspaper editor, a teacher, a volunteer nurse in the Civil War, a government clerk. Although he struggled to earn a living, he shared any money he earned with his ailing mother, his sick brother, and wounded soldiers.


I’ve written about Whitman before, so I’ll copy commentary from previous posts:


Walt Whitman sure has a lot of laudatory titles :  “poet of democracy,”  he’s called, “father of free verse,” “America’s poet,” to name a few.  Critic Harold Bloom proclaimed Whitman’s importance in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass:

“If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”


And no, we never did see the Northern Lights. If you are a lucky person who has, post a comment and tell me when and where.








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poem is on brick walkway near yellow sculpture

I Sit and Look Out

by Walt Whitman


I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;

I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;

I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;

I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;

I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.


Walt Whitman reminds me of my husband’s beloved octogenarian aunt.  Let me be clear that Aunt Joann is beardless and her sense of propriety prevents her from singing the body electric, at least in public.  But like Whitman, she’s relevant.   Her manners, language and habits may be of a different time, but she lives, vibrantly lives, in 2011.


Over 100 years after his death, Whitman is perhaps more relevant than any poet living today.  What other poet has his own Levi commercial and had a supporting role in a recent presidential scandal?


Speaking of scandals, “I Sit and Look Out” strikes me as a poem written by someone who’s been reading a lot of In Touch magazines at the grocery check-out.  Present-day examples abound to match his depressing litany of meanness and agony without end:

Convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves—Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford.

Mother misused by her children, dying, neglected—Brooke Astor.

Wife misused by her husband—Maria Shriver et al.

Treacherous seducer of young women (let’s call a rapist a rapist)–Dominique Strauss Kahn

And so on.  The only image I can’t fit to our times is the famine at sea, and a little poking around on the web hasn’t yielded the historical reference.


Granted, my knowledge of Whitman is limited, but the poem seems unusually dark for him.  We think of Whitman recording America singing, not America abusing itself.  Part of the uncharacteristic heaviness of the poem is that there is no call to redress the wrongs, no resolve to help the victims, no retreat to nature as an antidote to man-made evils.  The poet just sits and observes, an indifferent god or one who feels but does not intervene.


Furthermore, the poet seems as fascinated by his own act of observing as by what he observes.  I sit are the first two words of the poem and the second to last line is syntactically twisted to emphasize his seated posture:  I sitting, look out upon.


Is he paralyzed by the inhumanity, overwhelmed?  Is the “I” communal?  Is he including his readers in the guilt of inaction, of seeing and hearing but remaining silent?  Is he giving a job description for writers? Is this what poets and writers do, observe and report?  Whitman did work as a journalist for much of his life.


Or was he intent on not boasting of his good deeds?  Because Whitman did act.  Throughout his life, he sent what little money he had to those with none, and during the Civil War he served as a volunteer nurse.   Here’s an excerpt from his poem “The Wound Dresser”:

I onward go, I stop,           

With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,           

I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,           

One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,           

Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.           

This is the kind of compassion that earned Whitman the title “American Jesus.”


I posted this above a metro stop in Bethesda, a few blocks from the site of the horrific Lululemon murder. I was visiting my mother, another vibrant octogenerian, and rolled my suitcase around downtown Bethesda as I waited for her to pick me up.  Sitting outside a bagel shop, I listened, very Whitman-like, to young men inside argue about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  I watched as a homeless man approached a very large French couple a few benches down from me.  They pretended they didn’t understand what he was asking for.  (Do they not have homeless people in France?  Or do unshowered, bedraggled men with opened palms often approach strangers in their country merely to ask for directions or a book recommendation?)  I was up from the bench to help but a young girl reached the homeless man before I did.


“Hey, Warren, do you remember me?” she asked.  “I walked by you last week and you asked me for help and I felt really bad that I only had a dollar to give you.  So here,” she said, and she pressed a folded-up $20 bill into his hand.  They embraced.


Then I walked down the street and saw this over the temporarily closed Lululemon store:


A few days ago the shop re-opened with a beautiful stained glass window “love” above the store.  So it’s a like a church now, a church built on the remains of a martyr or a church that marks ground for love and not for evil.


A sign doesn’t stop evil, just as a poem doesn’t end meanness and agony, just as $20 doesn’t give a man a home. Love is just the only viable response.


Walt Whitman sure has a lot of laudatory titles :  “poet of democracy,”  he’s called, “father of free verse,” “America’s poet,” to name a few.  Critic Harold Bloom proclaimed Whitman’s importance in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass:

“If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”


Whitman seems particularly popular these days on the internet with artists, students, musicians, and aspiring filmmakers.  Hundred of youtube videos exist featuring Whitman’s poems, but I like this one of playwright and performer John O’Keefe reading an excerpt from “Song of Myself.”  The man’s perspiration is alarming, but you get a great sense of Whitman’s exhuberance, his rhythm and musicality.

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Expressing gratitude we risk platitudes and cliché, but I can’t help myself on this election day.  Voting is a marvelous and wondrous event!  Divisions and partisanship have filled our airwaves, mailboxes, answering machines and possibly our thoughts for months now and I’m wondering, couldn’t we all just hold hands for one minute and sing a Coke commercial or something, maybe sway or cry at the same youtube video or break bread together or fail to notice other people’s bad personal odors or offensive views, just something to remind ourselves that we may be opposition today, but we are enemies never, and countrymen first.

How about a poem to do all that, a Walt Whitman poem (no Levis allowed) to celebrate our “powerfulest scene and show.”

If I get up my nerve I may hand “Election Day” to anyone who shoves a flyer in my face at the polling station.  I’ll report back tomorrow.

Election Day, November, 1884


by Walt Whitman

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and
‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor
your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic
geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor
Mississippi’s stream:
–This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still
small voice vibrating–America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the
quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–
Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the
peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
–Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify–while the heart
pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.


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