Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision , affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses — radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish’d, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.
– Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
Tall order from our first and foremost poet and prophet of Democracy, Walt Whitman. Let’s see if we can edge through this. At the time he wrote this Walt felt there was a large gap and lack between the literary class of authors and their audience. He felt that for a democracy to remain a democracy it would need both great poetry and literature, without which we might as he put it in another passage be “destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time“.1
Walt was seeking a moral and religious vision to underpin the “productive and intellectual basis” of democratic society, and at the forefront he saw the central figure of the poet as the spokesperson, the singer, the chanter of its means and ways; a poetry “fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision , affecting politics”. Poetry for him should be out there in the thick of things, wandering abroad in the world as a witness to its events and intellectual vistas. Yet, he saw a need to question those who would undermine the principles of democracy as well, those in power both in politics and in private enterprise who would seek advantage and power over aspects of life both internal and external to the American democratic system.
I often wonder what Walt would think about our times. I shouldn’t have too, I should be able to go to our greatest living poets and gain insight into the shifts and currents of our climate, our democratic ups and downs. But can we? Who are our great poets at the moment? And are they doing what Whitman envisaged? Are they truly educating, informing, singing and uplifting the principles of democracy in the world today? This is my thought: that we discover who the poets are that are so touted by the academic elite and the literary critics of the world, see if they stand up to those original values that Walt Whitman and Emerson, and many other great authors from Melville to Faulkner and on have to say. What traditions maintain that stance with Walt in defending democratic values?
We know Robert Frost is among them and gone. We know that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were both expats and were both fascists at heart both in speech and in essays, letters, and books. Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane both honored democracy. Langston Hughes the great African-American poet who’s works single handedly gave us such distinct insight into the depression era and beyond. I could go on and on, but want at this time. I want you to think about poets living now among us that seem to be touted highly by the institutions. Are they truly democratic? Do they represent what Walt in Democratic Vistas was seeking? What are their names? I’ll not list my own list at the moment.
I’ll be adding in some readings down the pipe on this in individual slices. I’d just like people to leave in the comment area their pick of favorite democratic poet, one who lived it, breathed it, and maintained a stance of upholding democratic values and principles. I’m sure you can thing of a few. So please let us in on who these poets are so I can do a little follow up.
That’s my thought for the day.
1. Whitman, Walt (2014-06-06). Democratic Vistas and Other Papers (Kindle Locations 68-69). . Kindle Edition.