When in doubt, add another obligation

Exciting news this week as I embark on Coursera’s online poetry class, taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania.

Because, you know, when you find yourself totally overwhelmed by life, the logical response is to totally overwhelm yourself a little more. WHEN IN DOUBT, ADD ANOTHER OBLIGATION. Yep. I’m insane.

This week, we revisit the spiritual mother and father of American poetry:



I chose this photo of Whitman on purpose. I think the most common photos of him, in distinguished three-quarters view, with the dramatic white beard – signifying Literary Fixture, Unerring Sage – have the effect of obscuring what Whitman was like in his writing. He was boundlessly energetic, innovative, and as  I write this, younger than I am now: “I, now thirty-seven years old, in perfect health begin” is how he launches “Song of Myself.”

So there you have them. The one discursive, effusive, earnest; the other concise, elliptical, and wry . Talk about flipping the gender expectations. Dickinson and Whitman both embraced their own nature with intense self-scrutiny; they both bent their circumstances to fit their lives rather than the other way around. That’s an example to all of us, not just poets.