“What will your verse be?”Mr. Keating, Dead Poets Society
When I officially introduced my students to free verse last week, I knew that Walt Whitman would be on the menu. In my search for a shorter example, I came across the poem I first heard under the wise tutelage of Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. Yes, I literally sat in his class at Welton Academy back in 1959. Really… Okay, so it was 1989 when I saw the film. It’s essentially the same thing.
I had picked a different poem initially and then stumbled upon O Me! O Life! Who cannot resonate with the words of Whitman in these early days of 2021? He opens with the two core questions we as humans wrestle with every day: who am I, and what is this thing called life? The backdrop of the world around us only magnifies these questions. How can life be anything but tragedy when I’m surrounded by “endless trains of the faithless” and our cities are filled “with the foolish?” And yet how am I any better? You don’t have to look too far to see the “objects mean” and the struggle, the failures, and “sordid crowds.” It’s far too easy to look back over the past year and label it “empty and useless.” Truly, what good can I bring to this world, this life? My insignificance feels crippling.
But Whitman doesn’t leave us like so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels. The answer comes.
Know that the greatest gift you have to give is yourself. The greatest thing to celebrate is the very fact that you are here and you have purpose. Despite what you see, LIFE EXISTS in the face of so much death, and you have a unique divinely-inspired IDENTITY, despite the forces that demand you conform to their image. This is no Brave New World! The powerful play goes on and you are invited, dare I say called upon to contribute your unique verse. Use your voice! Do not become overwhelmed by what you see. Speak! Sing! Raise a Hallelujah! Only you know what your verse will be.
And someone needs to hear it.
From Leaves of Grass (1892)
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.