Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Walt Whitman Reversed: The Themes of Hopefulness and Solidarity As Seen Through the Lens of 21st Century Skepticism
This creative project consists of a combination of text and image, an original amateur poetic piece, and a series of photographs (courtesy of our creative partner, Irini Vasila) depicting natural landscapes relevant to the themes and feel of the poem. This poem is called "The Road Speaks" and is inspired by the poem "Song of the Open Road" by Walt Whitman.
One of Whitman’s most distinct literary attributes is the air of benevolence, hopefulness and spirituality that he has breathed through every single one of his poems. Whitman was a great believer and supporter of freedom, equality, human solidarity, kindness amongst men, and, of course, the American ideal of democracy. The deep connection he had with nature spoke of an artist with great sensitivities. Nonetheless, after a number of discussions among the members of this workshop, it started becoming clear that Whitman was very much a man of his time. In spite of him being part of a marginalized community and identity himself due to his homosexuality, he still spoke from an advantageous point of view (due to him being a wealthy white man) and seemed to exclude people of color from his talks about freedom and peace. Not only that, but this wide-eye naivete of his reads more like blatant ignorance based on unrealistic expectations and privilege in the context of twenty-first century thinking. In a sense, Whitman’s poems and themes seem to not have aged well, and that is exactly what served as the inspiration for my group’s creative project. After careful consideration, we decided to rewrite some of Whitman’s poems by reversing not only the narrator’s point of view, but also the themes. In this poem in particular, the image of the road featured in the source material becomes a living and breathing being that is fully conscious of the lives that it carries. Thus, the object becomes the subject and both narrative voice and gaze are reversed. This reversal of the gaze is meant to put the spotlight back on to Whitman’s ideals and scrutinize them. It aims to showcase how these ideas are reflected in a contemporary context, and also criticize the way Whitman’s exclusive and tone deaf idea about American liberty started off as joyful hope for a grand American future, but ended up creating unrealistic expectations while perpetuating social standards that benefited the few and well off, instead of the many and in need. In the original poem, the course of life is paralleled with the course of a journey upon the open road. In this rendition, the same road that Whitman spoke about, the one who represents not just a journey across the great wide West, but also the journey of life, which in Whitman’s mind is full of promise and positivity and protected by the institution of a democratic government, becomes aware and alive and speaks the mind of all the people it has welcomed in its embrace. The road represents a journey across America, across time and space, life and death. The road becomes a conscious and critical observer of the people who dare to walk upon its back towards their dreams and aspirations and, at the same time, talks back to Whitman and chastises him for not telling them “the whole truth” about how their journey was going to go. It reminds him that positivity is a valuable tool, but only when it’s firmly grounded in reality.
The aim of this creative idea has been to showcase how times and sensitivities have changed and to demystify Whitman’s ideals, but not completely demolish them. By appointing a critical eye on Whitman’s gentle naivete and joyful hopefulness, this poem doesn’t promote the death of positivity, but the embrace of balance, both socially and ethically. Because the road of life, politics and ethics is not a straight line, but a bumpy ride, full of challenges and tribulations that need to be acknowledged. By keeping in mind the struggles, while also adopting a positive attitude (like the one Whitman was preaching through the abolishment of the material and embracing of the natural in his poems) that is truly inclusive of everyone, the road towards a better future becomes easier to navigate.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Open Road.” Leaves of Grass. 1855. The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price, whitmanarchive.org/. Accessed 20 Dec. 2021.
—. “Song of the Open Road.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/ 48859/song-of-the-open-road. Accessed 20 Dec. 2021.
—. “Song of the Open Road (poem)” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Song_of_the_Open_Road_(poem). Accessed 20 Dec. 2021.
Contributor Bio: Athina Bekou