Last Updated 07 Dec 2022

Defending Walt Whitman

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Perfect discipline is an attainable reality, but if it is not there, no alternative exists but to carry on with the available discipline. Similarly, prefect democracy is the dream of a true democrat but one is aware that the path to achieve it is strewn with thorns. The suave politicians and the literary stalwarts all over the world are “carrying on the conversation that Whitman initiated over 150 years ago—a dialogue about democracy, poetry, love, death, and the endless permutations of life that he believed would define America and eventually produce a republic equal to its ideals.

Walter Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist. He was a part of the transition between Transcendentalism and Realism, incorporating both views in his works. …. Whitman is among the most influential and controversial poets in the American canon. His work has been described as a "rude shock" and "the most audacious and debatable contribution yet made to American literature. " (Walt…. ) Sherman Alexie was born in October 1966. His famous quote reads like the mission statement of an institution.

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His eternal craze for literary creations and the vast areas of literary subjects that he wishes to tackle is reflected in this statement: “"I know I have so much left to say and I don't know how much time I have left to say it all. " This statement indicates the thinking style and beliefs of Alexie are deeply impacted and influenced by Whitman. In the poem, “Defending Walt Whitman”, he makes the explicit mention of Whitman’s ideals and ideologies, and how they have influenced the thought process of the Americans, and consequently their action processes for the last fifteen decades.

Alexie highlights that Whitman is deeply concerned about the social imperfections in the American society. To achieve the level of democracy in the real sense, people need to be basically sound and industrious, and basic conditions need to be created for the people to become basically sound and industrious. Communal and individual democracies are alternative beats of the same heart of a Nation and they are achieved through justice and fair-play.

Deficiency in any one of them is not good for the overall health of the Nation. In a Nation, if the individual suffers, one need to assume that either the democratic principles are deficient, or the implementation process is corrupt and defective. If the society as a whole suffers, that can not be a perfect democracy. It is like the scale of justice. Both arms of the scale (in this context the society and the individual) are equally important to strike the correct balance.

“Whitman's continual wrestling with the problems and challenges of the emerging American democracy and the developing American democratic art has had a surprisingly widespread impact on other countries as well, where his democratic ideas and radical poetics have taken root and emerged in new hybrids as his work mixes with other national literatures. ” (Re-Scripting. ) Walt Whitman has deeply influenced and impacted the scene of the various poetic traditions. A poet, apart from his love for poetry, conveys important messages to the people through the poems.

Many issues also depend upon people’s understanding of the poetry. Some view him as the poet of socialism, radical sexuality, and also spiritualism. All mind-level philosophies and ‘isms’ mostly lead to quarrels, disagreements, arguments and counter arguments. Spirituality transcends the barrier of mind, where total bliss alone exists, and as such that zone is free from contradictions. At that level, all clashes cease, and hearty understanding triumphs. All types of diverse schools of poetry find the oases of unity in Whitman’s poetry, because its roots are in spirituality.

In the poem, “Defending Walt Whitman” Sherman Alexie writes, “Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams of the first jump shot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks. Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God. ”(Umbrella…. ) This is a profound observation. Any action small or big, done without the motivated desires, is supposed to bring, in the ultimate analysis, sterling results. An action has the reaction and the intensity of the reaction is in proportion to the intensity of the action.

This is the universally accepted by the spiritualists and the scientists. No action, no human effort can go in vain. Having done all the efforts, if one acts on in the world outside with supreme faith and surrender at the feet of God, the results are bound to be precedent-shattering. In the poem one sees the basketball players striving to be perfect to achieve their goal of victory. Their “all arms and legs and serious stomach muscles. ” (Umbrella…. )To achieve that level of perfection, the players have worked very hard, have undergone rigorous training.

The poet compares them to “the twentieth century warriors who will never kill. ”(Umbrella…. ) They do not possess cruel physical instinct to kill; but they have cultivated the physical instinct for the winning formula. “The remarkable fact is that everyone, at some point, has to confront Whitman, wrestle with his structuring of poetry, the nation, democracy, and the self: "I am large," he said, "I contain multitudes" …… To possess such dominant strength and secure universal appeal is possible only on the basis of spirituality, as secular principles lead to contradictions.

Spiritual principles, when practiced with sincerity and devotion lead to unity and universal brotherhood. That authors and poets of all genres, notwithstanding their race, nationality, gender and ethnicity, seek solace in one form or the other in the Whitman’s poetry. Whitman exhibits the intrinsic strength of his ideas, which beats all artificial human barriers and goes in search of the all-embracing truth. The nineteenth century American poet tackles a basketball game on a twentieth century Indian reservation. Basketball is Alexie’s favorite topic.

Can basketball be the subject matter and theme of serious poetry? Alexie shows it is possible from the viewpoint of Whitman. He tackles an original theme, and he does not hesitate to breakaway from the normal subject matters of poems, rhyme and standard meter. Alexie sees music and unusual charm in the physical movements of the basketball players, and compares them to the war-efforts of the warriors, though they do not fight war in the real sense. But their spirit is war-oriented. No basketball player likes to lose the game.

He uses all his bodily strength and will power in movements to outsmart the opponents. It is a dynamic game. Every player is trained to play with dynamism without surrender until the last shot is taken. It is the war of nerves and intelligence, without the ceasefire! Every pass is calculated to win. Hard work from the physical aspect and the call of the spirit lead to victory in the basketball game. Alexie is certainly aware of the powerful dynamics of combining the poetic Whitman with the energies and angles of the game of basket ball.

The beauty of a perfect shot is compared to the flawless efficiency in one’s pursuit, which is a divine quality. Alexie writes, as he refers to one such perfect shot of the basketball, “God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jump shot on a reservation summer basketball court where the ball is moist with sweat, and makes a sound when it swishes through the net that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect. ”(Umbrella…) This weeping is the cry of joy! The joy of achievement, after all the hard and intelligent work for a long period! It is the favorable result of the relentless pursuit.

Conclusion: Communal and individual democracies are alternative beats of the same heart of a Nation and they need to be achieved through justice and fair-play. Deficiency in any one of them is not good for the overall health of the Nation. One may wonder what the game of basketball has to do with perfect democracy. They say, efficiency in work is the ultimate goal of a human being. What you do is not important. But how you do, what you do is more important. The beauty of the basketball game is, for every shot that you plan, your have the rebuff of a counter-shot with a parallel plan.

Your need to think in advance of such counter-shots, and transcend all sorts of opposition to achieve the winning shot! Alexie elucidates the beautiful spiritual level, achieved through the equipment of the physical body as he writes, “Look there, that boy can run up and down this court forever. He can leap for a rebound with his back arched like a salmon, all meat and bone synchronized, magnetic, as if the court were a river, as if the rim were a dam, as if the air were a ladder leading the Indian boy toward home. ” You needs to have the will to grow and grow you will.

Alexie Sherman has given a very interesting poem, “Defending Walt Whitman. ” The theme and the style of the poem evoke not only curiosity but they are thought-provoking. As the poem progresses, it attains new spiritual dimensions and elucidates the meaning of struggles and beauty of human life. It seems to convey the message that duty and perfection are the harbingers of human prosperity. The basketball game seems to convey that there is no victory or defeat, the reality is only permanent efforts!

References Cited:

  1. Retrieved on July 22, 2008. Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work ... "'Live Oak, with Moss' and 'Calamus': Textual Inhibitions in Whitman Criticism.
  2. " Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14 (1997), 153-65. Palmer, Carole.
  3. Walt Whitman SummaryContemporary Spokane Indian poet, Sherman Alexie, has also been influenced by Whitman, mentioning him explicitly in his poem "Defending Walt Whitman".
  4. Umbrella: Defending Walt Whitman18 Sep 2005 .
  5. Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him. -- Sherman Alexei
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