As you read SELLING HOPE, it’s not hard to see that Walt Whitman had a huge influence on Hope’s dad, Nick, and in turn, Hope and their vaudeville audience. But, is it possible to enjoy Walt Whitman with our homeschool students? After beginning with his 1346-line poem Song of Myself, I began to have my doubts! Sharing poetry with kids can be a difficult task when we may feel overwhelmed by the task of understanding it ourselves.
Thankfully, we have authors like Barbara Kerley and her impressive picture book WALT WHITMAN WORDS FOR AMERICA to help share his story with our kids. (Coincidentally, this simple, but thoughful book has an interesting connection to another of this year’s nominees; it was illustrated by the author of WONDERSTRUCK, Brian Selznick!)
Learning about Walt
After learning a little about Walt Whitman’s life and ideas, it’s easy to see what Nick would have related to in his work. Walt Whitman wanted his poetry to be reflective of and connected to the America all around him. He thought a poet should be a kind of “tramp”; someone who travelled widely, seeking out new experiences and spending time with hardworking common men and women of the day.
But, being born in 1819, smack between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War, left Walt growing up and becoming a writer in an age of rapid change and the challenging of long-held beliefs in this new America. And even in this new country, good poetry or other art styles were still done primarily in the European methods.
Poetry was expected to adhere to certain rules, and was strongly metered and structured. Walt did not think this felt “American” and was the first to choose to try something different. He thought poetry should be more organic and be more reflective of the poet’s feelings and ideas. He wanted his poetry to reflect America in words, subject matter and style, not just European poems about American subjects.
Walt thought new American voices should be heard, and should represent the best (everyday miracles!) and the worst (slavery and the death of Abraham Lincoln) of what Americans were living through at the time. People were critical of his poetry at first–in both style and subject matter–claiming his poems weren’t cultured or polished enough. Like Nick, he sought to use what he knew to be relateable to the masses, both good and bad, in order to try and help people see the truth and the hope that existed around them.
A great, manageable resource for exploring some of Whitman’s poetry is POETRY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE: WALT WHITMAN. Here, you’ll find a short biography, along with excerpts from many of his poems, accompanied by some explanatory information.
Finding Your American Voice
In today’s America, the experience of being an American is very different from that of Walt Whitman’s lifetime. As Walt would probably agree, 21st-century American poetry should not look the same either. Try writing some poems in your own new style with words and subjects that truly speak to America today. Help kids consider who would be today’s “common folk”? What would be the best and worst of their experience as Americans today? For most kids, this America is all they have ever known and they will be its best voices.
~Valerie & Michelle