He was, at different points in his life, a journalist, a school teacher, a nurse and a government worker. If these were his only contributions in life, his human impact would have still been immeasurable. After all, he tended to Civil War soldiers in their greatest hour of need and educated children at a time when most received little.
But what Walt Whitman is most known for is a short collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, that he self published in 1855 and continued to revise throughout his life.
While met with initial controversy, his poems now embody much of what is wonderful about America and its people. As evidence of this trajectory, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of Interior after its publication; yet our same government distributed many of his poems to our soldiers during World War II, believing that his writing about America would inspire them.
Throughout his life he both experienced and witnessed unfathomable suffering. Yet his words ring with hope and purpose. In my favorite Whitman poem, O Me! O Life!, he tries to square these competing realities of suffering and hope.
O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring–What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
The powerful play of life is going on all around us. And whether we realize it or not, each day we are writing and revising our own verse. The only question is when we’re finally done, will it be worth remembering?
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