56. America: Walt Whitman

I just saw this on a Levi’s advert, which means the time to strike is now if you want to use this poem (and seem hip). Of course, it’s still valid tomorrow, as it was one hundred or so years ago. Ah, Walt….

The ad uses Walt Whitman’s own reading, preserved on an old wax cylinder. You can hear/use the same recording here He sounds like the woolly toothed madman described in “The Dead Poets Society”. Play it. Your kids will get a kick out of it.

The most obvious use of this poem is with a cross-curriculum Social Studies exploration of what America is all about. Are THEY in the poem? Is anyone NOT in it? What is Whitman’s vision of America? If you want to go into biographical criticism, would Whitman be considered part of America today (for example, he’s gay, but also a nurse in the war).

There are other Whitman poetry samples, such as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, and “America” is longer and quite good. I simply snatched the bit he recorded. I like Ginesburg’s “America”, too, but that’s a bit mature for middle school (you be the judge, but I suggest permission slips and a talk with your administration). Ginesburg’s “In a Supermarket in California” is to Whitman, just as “America” is a sort-of homage. Heck the whole book HOWL is dedicated to him.

Have them write their own poems. Or, use other Whitman poems to paint a collage of Whitman’s America. Have them read it like Whitman does. Can they pull of his gravity? He can be a bit long, but in choppy bits he is America’s greatest.

Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.


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