The Wonder of Poetry

"Poetry is the music of the soul, and above all of great and feeling souls." Voltaire

What is wonderful and moving about poetry and why do we read and write it?

I find Tom Schulman, in this excerpt from Dead Poets Society (one of my favorite movies), says it best:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

In the movie there are several references to Walt Whitman and his poetry.

walt whitmanWalt Whitman (1819-1892) considered to be one of America's greatest and innovative poets, was both an inspired poet and a skilled craftsman.

In experimenting with his style he created a unique, daring free verse approach to poetry while remaining very much in control of it. He was known for continually adjusting, altering and rearranging his poems. His work Leaves of Grass was published in six distinctly different versions, the last of which he offered on his deathbed.

Here are two of his moving and thought provoking poems that are among my favorites.

O Me! O Life! questions our existence and purpose, while O Captain! My Captain! was written after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman admired greatly.

O Me! O Life!

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 me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring--What good amid these,
O me, O life? Answer.

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

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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