SONG OF THE OPEN ROAD
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds
that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and
the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me
I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Walt Whitman’s Song Of The Open Road
As I’ve compiled the poems and essays for this blog, I’ve treated myself to the task of retyping some of my favorite poems into Microsoft Word files, which I’ve saved into a folder titled FAVORITE POEMS. The act of typing these great poets’ poems has the same impact as sticking my finger into a light socket, minus the burns and serious injuries. I can’t help but record these courageous poems and not spark a little something beautiful and tidy inside myself. Typing their words, I feel a debt of gratitude accruing inside of me, but I also notice the words breaking free and becoming my own. By the time I’ve reached the ends of most of these poems I’ve felt the words clinging to me like a child to a parent’s leg on the first day of preschool. The poems don’t want me to go. This could all be wishful thinking on my part, but there is a transfer of ownership in the process of copying these poems. I’m not sure what to compare this to; it is surreal and just might be native to poetry. Does repainting the Mona Lisa allow you to bond with Da Vinci? Does sitting at a piano and playing Moonlight Sonata commence a meeting with Beethoven? I’m not sure, but I know that in typing this fifth section of Song Of The Open Road I felt Walt Whitman joining me. What a privilege his presence was. (Notice the use of “presence.” And now the blog comes full circle. Yes, it was Walt who coined the phrase “we convince by our presence.” In fact, that phrase first appeared in a later section of Song Of The Open Road.)
While some poems reflect on the past, this poem---like so many of Whitman’s masterpieces---takes the immediate present as a launching point for a momentous and well-lived future. The first four sections of Song Of The Open Road are chained to the journey’s expectations and preparations. They represent unlocking the car, buckling the seat belt, checking the mirrors, turning the key in the ignition, tuning the radio station, and shifting into reverse to ease from a parking space. This fifth section is revving the motor. Ensuing sections will screech down “the open road” at blazing speeds. The extended metaphor of a car ride works in this case. Walt was a daring and voracious traveler; he was a connoisseur of people; he stretched his days so they would contain more encounters and experiences. The open road was home to him. He pursued, but even Walt needed a declaration to steady his nerves and unleash his limitless sense of adventure.
I could have chosen many other more famous and beloved Whitman poems, but I chose this brief section from Song Of The Open Road for a specific reason: it is an undeniable affirmation of confidence and discovery. No matter where you are in your life, this poem delivers hope and possibility, two qualities Walt Whitman is always good for. From the epic strength of the first line (“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines”) to the come-what-may acceptance of the final lines (“Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me, / Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me”), this poem exudes a contagious confidence and comfort in self. These are not false platitudes meant to sell greeting cards, steer troubled celebrities from rehab, or provide ammunition for bullied youths. Whitman’s declarations in this poem are rooted in a truth that many of his followers believe to be spiritual, with Walt as the high priest and prophet. He declares his independence endearingly, when he very easily could have bungled many of the lines in this poem by overcompensating with a brash swagger. There is nothing but truth and magnetism in his central realization “I am larger, better than I thought, / I did not know I held so much goodness.” Each of us deserves an epiphany of self like the one Walt experiences in this poem.
Amazingly enough, Whitman balances the large revelations of self with intrinsic connections with others. He pauses to “inhale” the gravity of his decision to fully explore the “open road,” but the pause is brief; Whitman appreciates that the beauty he finds is tied to others. He connects with others saying “You have done such good to me I would do the same to you, / I will recruit for myself and you as I go.” This isn’t a hollow promise; indeed, Walt Whitman made no hollow promises. He will go on to make you proud---the you he will know hundreds of years later through the faint connection of reading his words, absorbing a spindle of his magnificent spirit, his boundless imagination, his incomparable zeal for life. He may be long dead, but Walt continues to convince by his presence.