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Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. . . .

When he was 86 years old, Robert Frost was invited by the freshly elected young president to read a poem at the inauguration in Washington. The year is 1961, the president is John F. Kennedy, and the poem that Frost wrote for the inauguration was one entitled “Dedication” – which does not contain the above lines.  The glare of the sun off the snow on the ground blinded the elderly poet to the point that he could neither read nor recite the newly written poem. Frost stopped and in a strong and commanding voice, he began quoting a very familiar poem of his “The Gift Outright.”

Other poets have spoken powerfully at political moments. One of the earliest may have been Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

 

Lt. John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Field,” written during the horrors of WWI continues to represent that whole event in literature as does the novel All Quiet On The Western Front. Somehow when we move to WWII and the arts, things seem to shift to film and music—until the late fifties and sixties when poetry once more joined the triumvirate!

Lately, when I find myself thinking of pure poetry, I find myself thinking mostly of African-American poetry, starting, of course, with Langston Hughes and not ending but certainly finding one of its mountaintops in Maya Angelou. Certainly because of the racial conflict of the previous decades fourscore, these poets have been voices heard when more virulent voices were not.

Poetry and politics are not from different edges of the globe. Poetry is often the purest expression, the most concentrated form of the arguments of the human soul.

My thesis at Ole Miss is entitled “Frost Among the Leaves: The Dark Side of Robert Frost.” I’m sure you can find it in the university library in Oxford—probably untouched by human hands. I had always liked Frost’s poetry, and although I’m quite aware that he is considered second tier by some scholars who prefer more obscurity, I believe that very few can equal the depth of emotion that he captures in quite carefully crafted language.

He wrote of pastures, he wrote of paths in woods, he wrote of cows, but he also wrote of death, of fear, of betrayal, of angst, of the quest for meaning—and he wrote about God.

Next I want to read closely perhaps my favorite poem, written by another pastoral poet, also about sheep and pastures—and also about God.  I learned this poem in the first grade—and it continues to move me to quiet and to faith.

I bet you know this poem as well!

 

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