“In a certain sense, when I first read Whitman I didn’t think of a great distance. I heard an echo of a voice coming to me that was really a composite of other voices I had grown up with. And in that sense, when I started writing poetry, I don’t think I had Whitman’s voice in my head as much as I had the voices of others in my head, though I had read Whitman. I had read Tennyson. I had read the Harlem Renaissance poets. I think that what happened is that Whitman gave me a deeper hearing, which may be in concert with a deeper singing.”Yusef Komunyakaa (From: Celebration and Confrontation: Yusef Komunyakaa in conversation about Walt Whitman. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://www.thefreelibrary.com/)
In our social media world, the job of an “influencer” is a coveted career path that helps companies develop their “brand” and inspire customer loyalty. Similarly in the poetic world, there are foundational voices who influence generations of future poets and reach across time to touch the universal. Walt Whitman is one of America’s quintessential voices whose verse has echoed and influenced scores of poets. Whitman’s famous poetry anthology, Leaves of Grass, set his world on fire for its authentic voice and its controversial subject matter. Who can resist Whiman’s famous line? “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman’s poetry questioned the power structures of his time, and he was often a target of censorship for his frank exploration of sexuality. During the Civil War, Whitman served as a nurse for the Union Army and bore witness to the horror of combat as he tended the wounded. His poem “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” is a scene from the aftermath of battle – a haunting, deeply moving recollection of a field hospital from his Civil War experience. Written in 1865, the poem still holds power over us–a sobering witness account that still disturbs us. Watch below the YouTube video of Langston Ward’s Poetry Out Loud National Champion prize-winning recitation.
Fast forward a century, and the poet Yusef Komunyakaa is grappling with his own recollection of war experience as an Army correspondent during the Vietnam War. In his poem, “Facing It,” Komunyakaa has traveled to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and in so doing, he must confront the trauma of war and memory. His poem bears the echo of Whitman in both its tone, rhythm, and theme, a type of “deeper hearing” that Komunyakaa acknowledges as Whitman’s influence. Watch below the YouTube video of Yusef Komunyakaa’s reading. Additional information about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and designer Maya Lin is also offered below.
Similarly, poet John Murillo is facing his own version of war, the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that erupted after the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating. In his poem, “Mercy, Mercy, Me,” Murillo recalls the fury and destruction of those five days in the wake of injustice. Like Whitman and Komunyakaa, Murillo is wrestling with memory and trauma – this time perpetuated by racial discrimination and institutional violence. Listen below to John Murillo’s SoundCloud reading.
- Place yourself in the setting of the poem. What can you see, hear, taste, touch and smell? What sensation stands out for you in the poem?
- What is the pace of the poem? Does it move quickly or slowly? Boldly or timidly?
- What is the voice of the poem? For example, is it relaxed, passionate? Humorous or sober?
- What do you notice or appreciate about the poem?
- What connections do you have to the poem? What chord does the poem strike in you? Memories or experiences that you’ve had?
- How do you feel as you read the poem? What is the mood of the poem – the “emotional weather” of the poem?
- What dazzles you in the poem? What line or image “lights up” for you?
- How has the poem continued its effect on you since our mindful reading?