Today, I read Walt Whitman's preface to his epic poetic work Leaves of Grass. In it, he gives a kind of manifesto of what an American poet is, and can be. The preface itself is a beautiful work of poetic prose. As I read it, I marked passages that I found particularly powerful, and I have compiled them into a poem of my own. Here is my distilled version of Walt Whitman's version of an American poet:
His spirit responds to his country's spirit…
he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.
The expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new
He is the equalizer of his age and land…
he supplies what wants supplying
and checks what wants checking.
If the time becomes slothful and heavy,
he knows how to arouse it.
He never stagnates.
His brain is the ultimate brain.
He judges not as the judge judges
but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.
As he sees the farthest he has the most faith.
The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality.
He is a seer…he is individual.
They expect him to indicate the path
between reality and their souls.
This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people…
go freely with powerful uneducated persons
and with the young
and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air
every season of every year of your life,
reexamine all you have been told
at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem
and have the richest fluency
not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face
and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint
of your body.
The known universe has one complete lover
and that is the greatest poet.
His love above all love has leisure and expanse.
He drags the dead out of their coffins
and stands them again on their feet…
he says to the past, "Rise and walk before me
that I might realize you."
He learns the lesson…
he places himself where the future becomes present.
You shall stand by my side and look
in the mirror with me.
Great poets will be proved by their unconstraint.
A heroic person walks at his ease
through and out of that custom
or precedent or authority that suits him not.
Nothing is finer than silent defiance
advancing from free forms.
The message of great poets
to each man and woman are,
Come to us on equal terms,
Only then can you understand us,
We are no better than you.
It is that something in the soul which says,
How beautiful is candor.
All faults may be forgiven of him
who has perfect candor.
All that a person does or thinks is of consequence.
The coward will surely pass away.
The proof of a poet is that his
country absorbs him as affectionately
as he has absorbed it.