I am torn about this one. This is the first part of Whitman’s long “Song of Myself”. Normally, I try and use entire poems, but the best of Whitman often presents problems. After this part, if you seek out the rest, you will have to use your own judgment, as some of his phrases and allusions can be taken several ways; some not so appropriate for middle school. You know your students, but you also might want to check out my article on “Too Old to Know, Too Young to Learn: When Is Young Adult Literature Age Appropriate?”
That said, Whitman is great, if a bit long. He’s just loopy, and although that is not a real literary analysis I find reading him aloud is great fun. That fun is the key to teaching Whitman, especially to middle school students. I cannot think of a more appropriate and meaningful lesson than for each student to write their own song praising their own existence. If poetry was ever going to be meaningful, and not just funny or deep, it is this poem. Let them sing their own praises, and even if they are full of it, a sliver of truth, or at least hope, will be their lines. Let them stand on desks and chairs and chant and shout until they believe, as Whitman did, that there is something worth celebrating.
This great whimsy of oral celebration continues section after section of the poem, if your feel it appropriate for your students. It goes around, confuses, meanders a bit, and can make darn little sense, but in the hands of students allowed to celebrate in a way that would make Whitman proud the poetry comes alive. Our great American poet deserves to hear his words roll around in the mouths of American youth.
Let them sing.
Song of Myself
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.