Thursday, July 29, 2010

Got Optimism?

Where does someone in need of an infusion of exuberance and optimism look? Why, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, of course. OK, only if you're a total dork, or have an English degree. Guilty on both counts. I looked through my bookshelf, thinking I still had a copy. Earlier this week I received a facsimile of the original 1855 edition.

What I'm looking for is right there on the cover, beneath the title: "Bold-faced thoughts on the power and pleasure of self-expression." Zowie. There's the beginning of that mojo I need to reclaim.

Whitman wrote LOG less than a hundred years after the founding of this country, and he's downright giddy about the possibilities. I don't remember reading his prose introduction, which reads more like a list of America's virtues than an essay.

"The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. . . . Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall."

I'm only at the beginning of the book, but already I can't help but contrast Whitman's faith in the inherent greatness of our country and its people with the gloomy and mean rhetoric we hear from many in public life now. I don't hear enough of the "power and pleasure of self-expression," unless it's from people who are more interested in hearing themselves talk than in making our nation greater. Maybe there's so little of it because many have decided we can't afford it. There's altogether too many bald-faced accusations and mischaracterizations and not enough trust in our ability to solve the problems of our day.

It's not like I'm going to stop reading the news. But I expect that marinating myself in Whitman's prose poems is just the tonic I need.

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