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.