Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Walt Whitman on Election Day

From today's Boston Globe, by Robert Pinsky:

WALT WHITMAN'S poem celebrating Election Day calls our "quadrennial choosing" a more spectacular and powerful show than national scenic marvels such as Yosemite, Niagara Falls or the "spasmic geyserloops" of Yellowstone.

The poem is not wet or glibly sunny. Whitman chooses to speak of voting day not as beautiful or sacred but as "powerful." He compares it not to forest glades or meadows but to the fluid, dynamic energy of rivers, geysers and waterfalls and to the immense scale of mountains and prairies.

The close Cleveland-Blaine election of 1884 included personal attacks, nasty rhetoric, and religious prejudices ("Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" was a slogan). Whitman includes the imperfection with phrases like "good or ill" and "the darker odds, the dross."

The underground pressures that propel "seismic geyserloops," the "paradox and conflict" like a snowstorm of passionate opinions or "stormy gusts" - Whitman marvels at those tremendous forces. He doesn't praise the electoral process with adjectives or justify it with arguments; instead, he commends the day by invoking the past. The journeys of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln were powered by this turbulent, often defective energy, says Whitman. We can look back on his observation, over a century ago, and feel encouraged.


If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

'Twould not be you, Niagara - nor you, ye limitless prairies - nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite - nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyserloops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon's white cones - nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes - nor Mississippi's stream:

This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name - the still small voice vibrating -America's choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen - the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous'd - sea-board and inland - Texas to Maine - the Prairie States - Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West - the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling - (a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's): the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity - welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

- Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify - while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Robert Pinsky, a former US poet laureate, is the author of "Gulf Music: Poems." Walt Whitman, 1819-1892, was a renowned American poet.

I heard Robert Pinsky read the poem and speak about it on "Here and Now" (great Election Day show, by the way, have a listen, to segments or to the whole show) while driving back from the local Get Out the Vote for Obama meeting-place. Thank you, National Public Radio.

More later or tomorrow on this morning's canvassing experience.

1 comment:

pj said...

Yeah! My heart is panting in the ballot-shower as we speak!

Gotta love Walt. YAWP!