Friday, February 15, 2008

On Being Home Alone

While I was home alone last night, I found myself poking around in the library, and I bumped full force into Walt Whitman, my old friend from American literature. I've reported that I enjoy the American poets, and while Emily Dickinson shares glimpses of her world in short, staccato-like phrases, Walt Whitman rambles with confidence, sensuality, and a broadly democratic discourse. I reviewed several of his poems, but I found myself looking for something that I remembered from 1993.

During that year, I earned my doctorate from the University of Alabama, and, after five years of travel to Tuscaloosa on weekends, and research, writing papers, and studying, I surely intended to participate in the graduation ceremony. At that time, it was a ceremony that featured the doctoral candidates, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The speaker was Howell Raines, Alabama native, graduate of the UA journalism program, and the editorial page editor for the New York Times. He gave a memorable speech chastising state leaders for selling our state and the future of our children to large landowners--paper companies and others---by giving them a pass on property taxes. At some point in his remarks, he did offer advice to the graduates, and he quoted Walt Whitman---from the long preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman's lifelong collection of poetry. Here is that advice, written in 1855.

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Those words have remained somewhere in the recessses of my mind and I call them forward intermittently to review and enjoy again and again. I invite you to read the passage from one comma to the next and to compare his succinct advice with your own life experience. Comment?

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