"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Walt Whitman is in the bloodstream of American culture as Shakespeare is in ours. He died in 1892 but if his poetry seems astonishingly modern, it’s because much modern poetry grew out of it. Read Leaves of Grass for a rich feast of images, for generous, tumbling rhythms and a feeling of exhilaration.
If you want to know how he does it…. then you’re in the wrong place. My focus today is on the relationship of the poem above to the poem below. But in passing, I’ll remark on the value of repetition. Beginning poets often use crude rhyme as a way to give a poem structure. There are other ways to scaffold a poem without resorting to cat/sat/mat rhymes, and one of them is repetition.
Whitman repeats simple words, in simple ways. ‘Singing’ is in almost every line – a simple word which almost always implies joy. The repetition of work, of boat, of deck; each of these quietly establishes a characteristic of that particular person. He uses a simple metaphor to hold the poem together – the whole of America singing – and delivers it in the first line of the poem, freeing him up to enumerate the many different songs that make up the new country of America.
The last line of a poem is like the last note in a tune – it’s the one that hangs in the air as you walk away. ‘Strong, melodious songs’ is not an accidental description. Like America, the songs are strong; like the mixed population, they are melodious together.
Ten years after Whitman died, Langston Hughes was born in an America which was not at all ‘melodious’ for its black citizens. His poem, below, is a response to Whitman’s American anthem. It is powerful in its own right, and became a touchstone for many who did not know the poem it answers. It too uses plain language – brother, kitchen, laugh, strong. It doesn’t need complex images to make its point, nor does it use abstract words like ‘injustice’ or ‘racism’ – until the very end, when ‘beautiful’ and ‘ashamed’ are set against each other.
Like Whitman’s this poem sets up a simple metaphor – a darker singer, singing the same song – and uses the simplest structure to lay it in front of the reader. Today that singer eats in the kitchen. Tomorrow he will sit alongside his brothers, at the same table as them, acknowledged and equal in their eyes. We understand that ‘tomorrow’ means ‘in the future’. We understand that ‘the darker brother’ stands for all African-Americans currently denied a place at the table. Langston Hughes trusts the reader to work that out.
A new poem can gain strength by association with an old one, particularly a well known one. If you borrow a line or a phrase from the original, you must credit it to avoid any accusation of plagiarism; but don’t be afraid to write in response to someone else’s work. This kind of conversation between poems is a long and honourable tradition. Poets keep talking to one another even after death – and readers are privy to that conversation, if they eavesdrop carefully.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
[The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 2004)]