Celebrating Ourselves through Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

[Walt Whitman, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing left with elbow and nearby cane resting on a table]. 1881. Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

[Walt Whitman, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing left with elbow and nearby cane resting on a table]. 1881. Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

At this time of the school year, many of us are preparing to send our students to the next grade level, the next school, or out into the world. Why not use this as an opportunity to mark your year of poetry with a composition celebration?

Walt Whitman revised his poem “Song of Myself” a number of times for publication in his oft-revised book Leaves of Grass. The 1891-1892 “deathbed edition,” the last published during Whitman’s life, includes the “final” version of the poem. This might be a good teaching moment to share with students Whitman’s penchant for continual revision, even of previously published works.

Begin by reading selected portions of “Song of Myself,” or even the entire poem, focusing on Whitman’s celebration, not only of himself but also the natural world and the America he inhabits.  At a minimum, read stanzas 1 and 52 because they are excellent examples of Whitman’s celebrations. Stanza 33 is another that illustrates Whitman’s observations of himself, nature, and his fellow humans. These are also the three stanzas that can best serve as models for your students’ poems.

Depending on their level of comfort with composing poetry, students can use the structure of and even some wording from Whitman’s stanzas, replacing significant words or lines with their own. Your most comfortable poets may instead choose to embrace the spirit of his work without mimicking his format.

To illustrate from Stanza 1:

Whitman’s Original Text

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.

My “Celebration”

My eyes, every atom of my soul, form’d from verse, from words,
Born here of parents born here from parents of England, and their parents of Ireland,
I, now forty-six years old in health go on,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Consider writing your own celebration to model for your students and show them what you celebrate about yourself and the world. Ask students to share their compositions aloud or through an end of the year celebration on a physical or digital bulletin board. Aim for students who are leaving your classroom or library to be conscious of the ways reading and writing poetry have enhanced their year.

How do you end your year of poetry?

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