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Scott’s Column: Happy Birthday Walt Whitman

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
May 30 2019

Driving to work this morning NPR informed me that this coming Sunday is the bicentennial of Walt Whitman.  “Darn it,” I thought. “We could have had an entire Walt Whitman Sunday!”

I’m sure I first read Whitman in American Lit in high school, but I first really read Whitman in my late twenties, toward the end of my grad school years.  It was my practice at the time to read a few pages of poetry every morning, and I had bought a volume of Leaves of Grass for that purpose.  I often found myself not reading a few pages but extensive passages, caught up in Whitman’s writing which made me feel big and strong and capable.  I have a distinct recollection of sitting in a ski lodge in Colorado as I read “Song of Myself” and how it made me feel.

Whitman has remained one of those poets I am likely to pull down off the shelf and read again.  Various moments appear in my memory.

At my first All Church Retreat here, I sat on the bench by the pond with the geese and ducks swimming nearby in order to enjoy a lovely spring evening and re-read some of my favorite poems.

Another year and another day, I was holding newborn Sebastian as Michael read aloud “I Sing the Body Electric,” and I wept at the beauty of those words and the new life in my arms.

And I remember in those months after my coming out that Whitman was a source of strength and comradeship in his celebration of the erotic.

Whitman is also a favorite of and influence upon my favorite philosophers.  William James took Whitman as encouraging “fidelity to ourselves” and sanctifying “the human flux.”  The “you” Whitman wrote about “may mean your better possibilities,” James wrote.

Alfred North Whithead ranked Whitman with Giotto, Chaucer, and Wordsworth as contributing to the rise of “interest in natural objects and in natural occurrences, for their own sakes.”

One of my favorite minor philosophical works is The Lure for Feeling by Mary A. Wyman that discusses the connections between poetry and Whitehead’s philosophy.  Of Whitman she wrote, “It is the idea of God in the world, in all that lives, but particularly in the heart of man, that affects most profoundly the message of Leaves of Grass.”

Reading Whitman is its own form of spirituality.  It’s not a Christian spirituality, but it is democratic and humane and pluralistic and modern.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.