Even while staking out his place as a common man, Whitman saw for the poet a special role within democracy. In “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” (first published in 1856 but revised many times until its final version in 1867), Whitman asserts, “Of these States the poet is the equable man.” The equable person is one who both sees and acts justly. The poet does this better than the politician because, Whitman says:
[The poet] bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,
In peace out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty,
building populous towns, encouraging agriculture, arts,
commerce, lighting the study of man, the soul, health,
immortality, government …
He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a
As he sees the farthest he has the most faith …
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and
women as dreams or dots.
This role Whitman assigns the literary imagination in shaping the standards of judgment essential to democracy is a “startling claim,” says the American philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum. In Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Nussbaum argues that “the ability to imagine vividly, and then to assess judicially, another person’s pain, to participate in it and then to ask about its significance is a powerful way of learning what the human facts are and of acquiring a motivation to alter them.” In other words, poetry constitutes the practice of what robust pluralism requires.
A literary imagination, Nussbaum writes, “promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.” Thus, although Whitman’s racist views of black people, shaped in part by the bad science of the day, were contradictory and at times ambivalent, his poetic vision forged a way past his own hidebound limitations toward greater justice. In “To Foreign Lands,” Whitman claims that his poems offer the world the very definition of America: “I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World / And to define America, her athletic Democracy, / Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.” An “athletic democracy” is made so not by politicians, Whitman claims, but by poetry. For the poetic mind is a mind attuned to justice.
In her work On Beauty and Being Just, the Harvard professor of aesthetics Elaine Scarry describes the importance of multiple viewpoints, arguments, and counterarguments to “political assembly,” wondering how “will one hear the nuances of even this debate unless one also makes oneself available to the songs of birds or poets?” The basis of poetry is precisely those connections forged between different elements, different voices, and different perspectives. In envisioning the United States as “the greatest poem,” Whitman links the essence of poetry, which is unity within diversity, to the essence of democracy. Within the epic poem that is America, a president is but one figure.
* This article previously misstated the title of Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing."