Walt Whitman, a Long Island native inspired by the beaches of his beloved “Paumanok,” was not just an American poet: he was (and still is) America, the very land and people, itself. He was America in its inclusiveness, its welcoming of disparate elements, its newness, its beauty, and its idealism. He was America, too, for all its hypocrisy, its legacy of slavery, war, and persecution. Whitman represents a country that has continually gone to battle with itself, a country at once brilliant and maddening, a country that learns and grows as it loses and forgets.
Last week, in a decidedly un-American move, legislators on the Government Services Committee in Nassau County, Long Island voted against the nomination of Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. to the country’s first poet laureate post for political reasons. Committee members were offended and made uncomfortable by material in Wheat’s 2004 book, Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace. Many poems included in the volume, such as the oft-cited ” Iraq,” express criticism for the U.S. government and the military. (Wheat has said he served in the Marines.)
Perhaps Nassau County legislators, in creating the poet laureate position, believed they were going to promote the arts. Perhaps they wanted to encourage literacy, or to celebrate the written word. What they failed to realize, however, is that art does not live in a bubble, is not merely for the purpose of making us feel good (about ourselves, about our world), though it sometimes does. That some of Wheat’s poems are controversial because they challenge the established order is not surprising; what is surprising is that Nassau County legislators somehow imagine that great, or even just okay, poetry exists that does not somehow probe the difficult questions of our time, that does not make us question ourselves and those around us.
Walt Whitman embodied this quality in his writing, forcing upon his readers the responsibilities of art, of citizenship, of life:
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor
feed on the specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
(from Song of Myself)
Of course, we do look through Whitman’s eyes; he remains this country’s poetic father, though, as with our biological dads, we still find ways to question him, to build from him, and to use our own eyes just as he suggests.
Rather than let residents decide for themselves, or use their own eyes, Nassau County legislators have, in effect, declared Wheat’s words too poisonous to in any way represent the complicated and multifaceted face of contemporary America.
The strength of Whitman’s voice seems almost impossible to replicate today. What we have instead is a myriad of writers, artists, musicians, poets, bloggers, and ordinary people who have undertaken Whitman’s challenge: to speak for themselves.
Why are legislators in Nassau opposed to appointing Wheat? He’s spoken for himself, and they’ve responded. Can these views not coexist? Let his community members choose whether or not to participate in his conception of poetry. In the cacophony that is currently America, what’s one more voice?
We come to our deaths
The bomb speaks.
(William Carlos Williams, from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower)
RACHEL VOSS lives in New York.