R.I.P. Mary Oliver, Bride of Amazment


Mary Oliver, who died yesterday, may have been America’s favorite poet. I taught her Pulitzer Prize-winning American Primitive for over 20 years in a nature-focused Introduction to Literature class and once joined her for dinner when my colleague Lucille Clifton invited her to campus. When death has entered my own life, I have often turned to Oliver’s poetry.

For instance, I revisited “University Hospital, Boston” when my best friend Rachel Kranz lay dying in a Bronx hospital. I read “In Blackwater Woods” at the memorial service of my beloved colleague Kate Chandler. And the night after my oldest son Justin drowned, I hung on for dear life to two lines from Oliver’s “Lost Children,” although I didn’t know at the time where the lines came from.

I therefore devote today’s essay to some of Oliver’s views of death, especially as expressed in American Primitive, the poems I know the best. In “In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl,” death is a fearsome force, lurking in the darkness while we, like the crows, obsess over it endlessly.  Addressing the owl/death as “the bone-crushing prince of dark days,” she writes, “You/ are the key to everything while they fly/morning after morning against the shut doors.” Then she adds, “You/ will have a slow life, and eat them, one by one.”

In “University Hospital” she describes loss as “a place of parched and broken trees,” and in “Blossom” she writes that “time/ chops at us all like an iron/hoe” and that “death/is a state of paralysis.”

Yet “Blossom” also points to something beyond individual death—“we are more than blood,” she writes–and in “The Fish” she follows this up by looking at the bigger picture. After describing the painful death of a fish, which she catches and eats, she describes the cycle of life:

           Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

At this point, life and death are less an individual tragedy and more a grand mystery. This growing realization helps account for her equanimity at the end of “In Blackwater Woods,” where the fires of life and “the black river of loss” roll back and forth in a drama “whose meaning/none of us will ever know”:

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it:
and, when the times comes to let it go,
to let it go.

I do not know how Oliver responded to her death when it finally came to her—lymphoma carried her off at 83—but her acknowledgement that she would one day die meant that she was determined to live life as fully as she could. In “When Death Comes,” she is resolved to follow the advice of her beloved Thoreau, who in Walden writes,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Or as Oliver puts it, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement”:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity,
What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

I pray that Oliver stepped through that door full of curiosity. I can’t imagine her not having done so.

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Teach Chaucer to Address Sexual Assault

E. M. Scannell, illus. for Wife of Bath’s Tale (1884)


I’ve been talking with Idaho English teacher Glenda Funk, who is proposing a panel for the upcoming NCTE convention (National Council of Teachers of English) on teaching literature in ways that make a tangible difference in students’ lives.  After I mentioned how The Wife of Bath’s Prelude and Tale foreground issues of sexual assault, she sent me a powerful Time article by author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose young adult novel Speak (1999) “tells the story of a teenage girl struggling through the emotional aftermath of being raped.”

Anderson says she has discussed Speak in high schools all over the country. While she expected the responses she receives from girls—she has encountered literally thousands of victims in the 20 years since the novel was published—she was surprised to hear as much as she did from boys.

The good news is that many boys are deeply concerned about rape and assault issues. The bad news is that most are severely ill-informed:

In schools all over the country, in every demographic group imaginable, for 20 years, teenage boys have told me the same thing about the rape victim in Speak: They don’t believe that she was actually raped. They argue that she drank beer, she danced with her attacker and, therefore, she wanted sex. They see his violence as a reasonable outcome. Many of them have clearly been in the same situation.

They say this openly. They are not ashamed; they are ill-informed. These boys have been raised to believe that a rapist is a bad guy in the bushes with a gun. They aren’t that guy, they figure, so they can’t be rapists.

… This is only made worse by the other question I get most often from these teenage boys in the classroom: Why was the rape victim so upset? They explain, The sex only took a couple minutes, but she’s depressed for, like, a year. They don’t understand the impact of rape.

And then Andersen makes a comment that shows where Chaucer can help. As shocked as she was, she

quickly learned that reacting with anger and judgment did not help anyone.

In Wife of Bath’s Tale, a knight has raped a young woman and is brought before Queen Guinevere’s court. Rather than have him executed, Guinevere goes the educational route and grants him a year to discover what women “moost desiren.” If, after that time, he does not find the answer, the court will behead him. In short, to save his life he must see the world through women’s eyes.

I’ve written on this previously so I’ll just jump to where he ends up. He travels all over England interviewing women, and each one gives him a different answer. Finally, in despair, he accepts the help of an old crone, who is actually the queen of fairies in disguise. She tells him that women most want sovereignty, and the women in Guinevere’s court affirm that the answer is correct.

That’s not the end of the story, however, because he then must demonstrate he has internalized the insight. Furthermore, as I read the story, sovereignty is not the real answer. Or rather, it is not the entire answer. Yes, women want sovereignty over their own bodies and actions but they want something else as well. If the crone has given him the answer underneath the answers, he himself must figure out the answer that lies beneath even that answer. Women want r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

The knight demonstrates no respect for the old crone to whom he is married, the price she has exacted for telling him the correct answer. When he wails about having an old, ugly, poor, and lower-class wife, she learnedly explains why none of this should matter. As Jesus and others have preached, it is enough to have a beautiful soul. Everything else is superfluous.

The knight is incapable of such higher wisdom, however, and continues to lament his fate. Still in educational mode, his wife then offers him a choice. Either he can have her as she is, which while old and ugly is absolutely faithful, or she (being a fairy) can transform herself into someone who is young, beautiful, but also potentially unfaithful. Given the medieval fear of being cuckolded, which threatened one’s masculinity and sense of self respect, the knight has been given an apparently impossible choice.

Out of such impossible choices comes real learning. The knight, who after all has just undergone a year-long course on women, comes up with the right answer: he leaves the decision in his wife’s hands:


“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,                 
I put me in your wise governance;                 
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure                 
And most honor to you and me also.                 
I do not care which of the two,                 
For as it pleases you, is enough for me.”

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,                 
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”
“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

“Kiss me,” she said, “we are no longer angry,                 
For, by my troth, I will be to you both —                 
This is to say, yes, both fair and good.

His marriage, in other words, will now become a partnership where each consults the needs and desires of the other—which, after all, is how we want our young people (also our old people) to see their own relationships.

Unfortunately, the Wife of Bath does not manage to engineer such a marriage in her actual life. Her husbands are so hung up on medieval notions of patriarchal control that they never give her the respect she craves. Nor can she get such respect from her fellow pilgrims, who regard her as a more or less entertaining sideshow (entertaining to the pardoner and the summoner, irritating to the friar). Fairy tales gives her a place to dream.

We who live in a far less patriarchal world have more reason to hope.  As Anderson tells us,

We need to ask our boys questions so that we understand what they think they know about sex and intimacy. Sharing books, movies and TV shows are a great way to open these conversations. Discussing the choices made by fictional characters paves the way for more personal conversations.

We need to tell our own stories to make sure our boys understand that these things happen to people they know and love. We need to give them the tools required to navigate relationships in a positive way.

Our boys deserve information and guidance. The only way they’ll get it is if we speak up.

Which books should one share? I’m in favor of teaching both contemporary young adult literature and the classics. YAL like Speak has the advantage of speaking directly to the issues in language that young readers will recognize, just as Chaucer spoke directly to medieval audiences. But the classics have a number of advantages as well.

First of all, they can elude the censorious radars of those parents who think that exposing their children to these issues will corrupt them. Wife of Bath’s Tale may seem toothless because they regard it as a dusty museum piece.

The historical distance, furthermore, cushions the rawness of the issues, as does the fairy tale structure. Such distancing has always been one of fiction’s strengths and it operates in Chaucer’s tale just as it does in, say, Twelfth Night, which allows students to safely explore transgender issues and same sex desire. Not everyone can handle the raw heat of direct expression.

Also helping out is the tale’s riddle structure, which puts students in a problem-solving mode. As the story progresses, a teacher can ask them what do women in fact most desire? And what makes for a beautiful relationship?

Furthermore, reading The Wife of Bath puts students in contact with one of literature’s most generous and open-hearted authors, someone who created a three-dimensional character of immense complexity at a time when women were stereotyped as either virginal madonnas, lascivious young maidens, or emasculating shrews.

On top of that, the poetry’s gorgeous.

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What Is Eating Away at America?


What does it mean to have a Russian asset as president, if the FBI’s suspicions (as reported by the New York Times) turn out to be correct. Perhaps William Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose” captures the situation.

In that instance, the Rose would be the American republic, which is sick despite its high ideals and its constitutional system of checks and balances.

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Something is eating away at America’s rose and Trump is the form that the worm has taken. Blake calls for us to look past immediate causes and look for deeper explanations. While I’m not sure what they are, the poet provides us a framework for exploration.

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Books Gave Me a Refuge

Joseph Seymour Buy, An Interesting Book


I’ve been dipping into A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, given to me by my good friend Sue Schmidt and recommended by reader Glenda Funk. A range of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers and others were asked to write a letter to young people about the value of reading. Original illustrations accompany the letters, and the proceeds go to the New York public library system.

Among the many letters, one of my favorites is by activist Rebecca Solnit, who talks about how literature came to her rescue when she herself was a child. Here’s an excerpt, beginning with an allusion to Emily Dickinson’s “There is no frigate like a book.” I especially like the description of literature as “a strange data-rich-out-of-date version of what it means to be human”:

Some books are wings. Some are horses that run away with you. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends. In some books you meet one remarkable person; in others a whole group or even a culture. Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles. Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning. Some are handheld lights you can shine on almost anything.

The books of my childhood were bricks, not for throwing but for building. I piled the books around me for protection and withdrew inside their battlements, building a tower in which I escaped my unhappy circumstances. There I lived for many years, in love with books, taking refuge in books, learning from books a strange data-rich-out-of-date version of what it means to be human. Books gave me refuge. Or I built refuge out of them, out of these books that were both bricks and magical spells, protective spells I spun around myself. They can be doorways and ships and fortresses for anyone who loves them.

When I was in middle school, my own fortresses against loneliness and the ugliness of segregationists were Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, Greek mythology, and the Arthurian tales. My bitter medicine was To Kill a Mockingbird. What works came to your rescue?

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On Using Lit as a Cudgel

Goya, Fight with Cudgels


A conservative reader the other day accused me of relentlessly using this blog as “an anti-Trump cudgel,” which got me thinking about whether I was indeed guilty of losing perspective. Was I in the grip of what Balzac calls an “idée fixe”—which is to say, an obsession that defines a life?

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the phrase first appeared in Balzac’s Gobseck, his brilliant novella about a man whose every action and thought are defined by avarice, and other Balzac characters followed suit. One finds plenty of other fixated characters in literature, with Dickens jumping to mind.

Small digression: Obélix’s little dog in the Astérix comic series is named “Idéfix”—as good a name for a dog as any I can think of.

So am I guilty? The reader has a point if we expand Trump to include rightwing extremism in general, since I’ve written an inordinate number of posts about our partisan politics over the past nine and a half years. I’ve just put together a collection of my essays on Trump and Trumpism and was amazed at how many I had to cut to make the book a manageable size.

In my defense, I’ve written many non-political essays as well. When one writes six essays a week about whatever is on one’s mind—along with the literature that casts light upon it—one reveals several obsessions. But my interest in politics is certainly up there.

In one way, this shouldn’t comes as a surprise since many of my intellectual efforts arose in response to a rightwing cudgeling no less fixated than my own. During the George H. W. Bush administration, conservatives used literature to cudgel multiculturalism, gesturing towards Shakespeare and shouting, “Austen, not Alice Walker” in order to dismiss a growing interest in literature by previously marginalized groups. The more literate of them cited Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” or T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent.”

Particularly distressing to me was how some on the left accepted the framing, in a sense arguing, “Alice Walker, not Austen.” A few voices inveighed against “dead white men,” as though every author I taught in my early British Literature survey classes was like George Eliot’s Casaubon, squelching the prospects of future Dorotheas and Ladislaws with the dead hand of the past.

Whether from a rightwing or a leftwing perspective, such a framing made older writers monochromatic, seeming to represent the same thing. The framing turned authors who were as open to difference as anyone has ever been—I’m thinking especially of Chaucer and Shakespeare—into exemplars of a hoary ideology. Works that thrilled me to the core were either frozen by conservatives into lifeless monuments or demonized by leftists as the products of patriarchal tyrants.

I therefore set out to liberate canonical authors, showing how explosive their works were and can continue to be. If I have reduced them in my own framing, well, that is to be expected. As I said, we each of us have our fixed ideas. More important is the dialogue that emanates from expressed views.

As I think about it, I rely to a certain extent upon knowing that there are conservative readers out there who serve as a counterweight. When I applaud Shakespeare for, say, shaking up traditional gender definitions in Twelfth Night, in the back of my mind I am glad that there are others arguing that Shakespeare stands as a bulwark against anarchy. I’m for liberalizing culture and want individual rights to be respected, but I recognize the dangers of change occurring too quickly. I depend on other perspectives to maintain balance.

As we brandish our cudgels, we must maintain respect for our adversaries. The narrator in Gobseck does not have the miser’s particular obsession, but he learns a tremendous amount from him.

Further thought: The early 1990s haven’t entirely left us when it comes to the culture wars. Iowa’s Rep. Steve King (R) just equated “Western Civilization” with white nationalism and white supremacy, using the first to uplift the second two. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he said in a New York Times interview.

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What I Heard Was My Whole Self

Verrocchio, The Baptism of Christ

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading concerns Jesus’s awakening as he was being baptized by John. That moment was his own epiphany, when the membrane between the sacred and the profane was penetrated and he realized that God dwells within us (Luke 3:21-22):

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Borrowing from Rilke, Denise Levertov describes a similar awakening. To set up her poem, here’s the Rilke original, from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1):

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

And now for Levertov’s version, in which she imagines being knighted by the vision:

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

I think also of a stanza from songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, which seems to succumb to despair but then detects a crack in the firmament:

Here are the words in full:
The birds they sing, at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be.

Yes, the wars, they will be fought again
The holy dove she will be caught again
Bought, and soul, and bought again
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Moments of awakening are always momentary, but in the cracks we see the light, we hear the bell, and everything changes.

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Lindsey Graham as a Dickens Toady


High school teacher Carl Rosin, whose Great Expectations class interviewed me by telephone yesterday, suggested that Donald Trump’s national shutdown is giving us our own versions of Dickens’s “toadies and humbugs.” For a while I’ve seen Vice President Michael Pence as candidate #1, but I must say that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is quickly rising in the ranks, especially with his extraordinary recommendation that Trump buck the Constitution to get his way.

As CNN reports, the latest example is Graham

calling for President Donald Trump to invoke national emergency powers to fund his border wall.

“Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi’s refusal to negotiate on funding for a border wall/barrier — even if the government were to be reopened — virtually ends the congressional path to funding for a border wall/barrier,” Graham said in a statement. “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.”

Let’s be very clear about this: there is no emergency that involves immigrants swarming over the border and, even if there were, the wall would not address it. The only emergency is that Trump faces disenchantment from his rightwing supporters if he doesn’t build it. In other words, not the country but Trump’s Republican Party is facing an emergency, as Graham all but admitted to Fox’s Sean Hannity the other day:

“If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019, in terms of him being an effective president,” Graham said.

“That’s probably the end of his presidency,” he added.

In short, Graham is putting his party over the Constitution.

Dickens’s  toadies and hypocrites aren’t guilty of crimes of state but they are similarly distasteful. They grovel before the decaying Miss Havisham hoping to inherit her wealth, which leads to such Graham-like scenes as the following:

“Dear Miss Havisham,” said Miss Sarah Pocket. “How well you look!”

“I do not,” returned Miss Havisham. “I am yellow skin and bone.”

Camilla brightened when Miss Pocket met with this rebuff; and she murmured, as she plaintively contemplated Miss Havisham, “Poor dear soul! Certainly not to be expected to look well, poor thing. The idea!”

“And how are you?” said Miss Havisham to Camilla…

“Thank you, Miss Havisham,” she returned, “I am as well as can be expected.”

“Why, what’s the matter with you?” asked Miss Havisham, with exceeding sharpness.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” replied Camilla. “I don’t wish to make a display of my feelings, but I have habitually thought of you more in the night than I am quite equal to.”

“Then don’t think of me,” retorted Miss Havisham.

“Very easily said!” remarked Camilla, amiably repressing a sob, while a hitch came into her upper lip, and her tears overflowed. “Raymond is a witness what ginger and sal volatile I am obliged to take in the night. Raymond is a witness what nervous jerkings I have in my legs. Chokings and nervous jerkings, however, are nothing new to me when I think with anxiety of those I love. If I could be less affectionate and sensitive, I should have a better digestion and an iron set of nerves. I am sure I wish it could be so. But as to not thinking of you in the night—The idea!” Here, a burst of tears.

MNBC National Affairs analyst John Heilemann said the other day that threatening to declare national emergencies over policy differences is something that only autocrats do, and I still can’t get over how Republicans are letting Trump get away with it. They appear to love Big Brother.

Pip describes the kind of collective mentality that takes over in such situations:

Before I had been standing at the window five minutes, they somehow conveyed to me that they were all toadies and humbugs, but that each of them pretended not to know that the others were toadies and humbugs: because the admission that he or she did know it, would have made him or her out to be a toady and humbug.

Sooner or later, they will all discover that Trump will not reward them for their behavior any more than Miss Havisham does.

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Whitman Would Embrace Trump’s Victims

Thedor Kaufmann, “On to Liberty” (1867)


I wrote yesterday’s Walt Whitman post before hearing Donald Trump’s Oval Office address, which is why I find myself returning to the poet again so soon. Like the Statue of Liberty mentioned by Sen. Chuck Schumer in his response to Trump, Whitman’s Song of Myself serves as an antidote to the president’s racism and xenophobia.

Trump, as he did from the day he descended on his escalator (and in fact has been doing all of his life), once again used a few lurid crimes to characterize all immigrants, a tactic employed by bigots since time immemorial and one I  witnessed regularly in the service of segregation when I was growing up in southern Tennessee. (Such characterizations led to regular lynchings up through the first half of the 20th century.) Irrelevant to Trump was the fact that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native Americans and that white terrorists are more likely to plant bombs and shoot masses of people than are people of color.

I was particularly struck by Trump’s contention that he stood by grieving families following immigrant attacks. If you want someone who actually reaches out to those in trouble, look instead to Whitman, not only to Song of Myself but to how he became a nurse and dedicated himself to wounded Civil War soldiers.

If Whitman were alive today, there’s no doubt that his verses would mention families fleeing violence in Central America, undocumented workers slaving away in sweat shops and resorts like Mar-a-lago, and others doing what they can to making a living. Although he focused on America (“I sing America”), in today’s globalized world his vision would encompass all the Americas, and he would think of refugees everywhere. The man who proclaimed, “I contain multitudes” would expand his vision.

Imagine Whitman’s runaway slave updated so as to apply to a mother and child fleeing violence in Honduras:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.

I have written in the past about both walls and the Statue of Liberty. Below are the links:

Wall posts

Trump’s Wall, Literal or Symbolic?

Trump’s Crusoe Wall Goes Up in Airports

Langston Hughes: Oppression’s Walls Will Have to Go

Trump’s Pleasure Dome (with Caves of Ice)

Upon Walls: A Letter to the Incoming Class

Fences, Good Neighbors, and Immigration

Statue of Liberty post

The Synergy between Statue and Poem

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Whitman Humanizes the Judicial Process

Van Gogh, “Prison Courtyard” (after Gustave Doré)


In a fascinating project described by New Yorker author Jia Tolentino a while back, a young filmmaker used Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself to understand Alabama culture. Touring the state, Jennifer Crandall had different people recite lines from the poem, including a drug court judge in an open session. I highly recommend watching the clip included in the article, which is really something.

Jia Tolentino describes the project:

The idea for “Whitman, Alabama” came to [Crandall] quickly. She figured that she could piece together Song of Myself in documentary fragments, with the citizens of Alabama using Whitman’s most famous poem as a conduit to speak about themselves. The poem has fifty-two verses; each video segment would pair a subject with a verse; they could release one video per week for a year.

Here’s what happens inside a drug-court session: The camera is inside a courtroom in Scottsboro, Alabama, with green marble walls, a deep wooden bench, and a gray-haired judge flanked by state and U.S. flags. It’s a drug-court session, for addicted offenders who have received state-supervised rehabilitation rather than jail time. Judge John Graham questions a pretty young woman with a pink streak in her brown hair, both of their accents like gobs of honey in their mouths. She states her sober date for the record and fidgets as she talks about getting her kid through school. Then Graham starts reciting Verse 37 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

“You laggards there on guard, look to your arms,” he says, behind the bench, as the camera surveys the room. “In at the conquer’d doors they crowd, I am possess’d.” The woman nods, is dismissed. A ginger-haired man in a white button-down replaces her. “Good morning, Mr. Freeman,” the judge says. The man, Chris Freeman, says he’s staying sober, and Graham approves. Then the exchange twists into poetry again. “For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,” Freeman says. Graham answers him, “It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.” Their eyes are calm, locked on each other, as if they’ve done this a thousand times.

In Verse 37, the poet sees himself in the imprisoned, the sickly, and the poverty-stricken:

You laggards there on guard! look to your arms!
In at the conquer’d doors they crowd! I am possess’d!
Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.

For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.

Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,
(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)

Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.

Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp,
My face is ash-color’d, my sinews gnarl, away from me people retreat.

Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg.

Before the session opens, we see the judge recalling a mentor telling him that, while his job was very important, he himself wasn’t. We see such humility displayed in his recitation of the Whitman line. Although he is in charge of the courtroom, by citing a line that identifies him with prisoners, he displays a kind of “there but for the grace of God go I” sympathy with the recovering addicts. The effect is astounding.

The impression is seconded by a follow-up interview with the judge by the New Yorker writer:

Graham hadn’t wanted to recite anything “too lawyerly, too judge-y,” he said. “But, I have to admit, Jenn picked the perfect verse.” I asked him if there was anything in Verse 37 that he’d connected to in particular. He began reading it to me over the phone. “Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,” he read. “Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.” He told me that he grieved when he had to send someone to jail or prison—that he did everything he could to avoid it.

While poetry may not be able to save humanity, it’s not for lack of trying.

Posted in Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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