Friday, May 1, 2009

O Me! O Life! - Walt Whitman


O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I,
and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the
struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see
around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest of me
The guestion, O me! so sad, recurring---What good amid these,
O me, O life?

That you are here---that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

---Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman's O Me! O Life!

Year two of my national poetry month blog has come to an end. Who better to cap it all off than Walt Whitman! The Father of American Poetry, Walt wrote as he lived—with care and curiosity, a relentless spirit forever discovering a higher plane of goodness in humanity. With a penchant for long lines and anaphora, Whitman wrote his way into literary history with his iconic Leaves Of Grass, a collection of poems revised throughout Walt’s life and representing his life’s work. I could go on heaping accolades upon Walt, but that might take a while and I’d surely lose my audience. Instead, let’s take a look at one of his poems, O Me! O Life!

I fully expect that some people will read O Me! O Life! and think it’s contrived, fanciful, and formulaic. After all, the poem is a single sweeping question with a couplet answer; there really isn’t much to it. Those are the arguments against the poem; here are the arguments for O Me! O Life! Rarely do we get a Walt Whitman poem that resolves itself within twenty lines. Sure, Walt composed a fair amount of poems totaling a handful of lines or less, but when most well-versed readers think of Walt Whitman they immediately visualize pages upon pages of words all composing a single poem—Song Of Myself. A contrast in style or a microcosm of his larger works, O Me! O Life! tackles the essential question of human existence and what exactly we are to do with our lives. Walt’s stirring answer serves as an invocation to readers after a disproportionately long list of negatives that discourage us from living the full lives that we’re capable of.

“O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring” is how Whitman launches the poem into an abundance of gripes and grievances. His list is cleverly constructed, as “the endless trains of the faithless” and “cities fill’d with the foolish” give way to Walt “forever reproaching” himself. He inserts himself into the meat of the poem by asking “for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?” This incarnation of Walt views life not as an opportunity, but as “the struggle ever renew’d.” He can’t help but notice “the plodding and sordid crowds” and his place among them. They are a sad bunch, looking at their time on earth as “empty and useless years,” and even sadder is how Walt naturally sees himself “with the rest me intertwined.” From this realization, Walt arrives at the question steering the poem towards its eventual startling answer, “The question, O me! So sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”

After abruptly ending the first section of the poem, Walt gives readers some white space on the page, perfect for pondering the question he has just posed. This white space allows for pause before the answer: a simple, yet spirited refutation of all we’ve read in the poem thus far. With all the “poor results” Walt surveyed in the initial portion of the poem, the about-face that he delivers with his answer is surprising. But it shouldn’t be surprising; here comes the unabashed hopefulness that characterizes Whitman’s writing. “That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” This is Walt’s verse—encouraging others to live in spite of the many difficulties surrounding us. Earlier this year when I began preparing my essays for this year’s version of my national poetry month blog, I chose to close out the month with this poem. The final lines are not just an answer to the questions Walt raises in the poem, but they are what I hope you will take with you as you go forth and contribute your own verse. There is no reason to be timid or hesitant, no reason to not say hello to each stranger you meet, no reason to ignore the person in need beside you, and no reason to downplay your own successes earned through hard work. Each day presents more opportunities to contribute your own verse to the powerful play going on all around you. Don’t worry about the audience; be bold, be courageous, be imaginative, and share your own story with the world. Trust me (and Walt), the world will be a better place if you follow that advice.


C.O said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Chigozie,
Thanks for your kind words and for visiting my blog. I checked out your blog and wish you best of luck with The Native Hurricane. Much continued success.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poem,one of my all time favorites.I like the way you explained it.And just off record this was also used in the Dead Poet's Society.

Unknown said...

Thank you, that was a worthy read.