Walt Whitman Returns. . .

POETRY FORMAT, 27 May 2019

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


“This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
Despise riches,

Give alms to everyone that asks, . . . “
— Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

May 31, 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth in West Hills, New York. The passage of two centuries of continuous war and violence reveals humanity has neither learned nor heeded Whitman’s sage words and pleas for unity, connection, oneness with all things. Whitman’s words and thoughts remain because they are sacred. He beheld the horrors and the beauty of life, breaking with conventional poetic forms, to inspire a 19th century vision of life transcending time… enduring.

I wonder what Walt Whitman would say if he appeared in our time? I know he would recognize the betrayal of history’s lessons, humanity’s continued infatuation with violence and war, and our limited empathy. He would scold us! Reprimand us! Remind us solutions are to be found in compassion and connection, not metal.

In one of those special moments, readily experienced while reading Whitman, I experienced Walt Whitman’s presence. I sought words, feelings, images, wanting to secure his presence, finding in them a profound sense of existing. I wanted to immediately to write a poem honoring his voice and intentions. I wrote a draft poem in sojourn in hours, words tumbling out unimpeded convention. I was possessed by purpose.  I waited a few days, overwhelmed by my efforts to hear his voice, to channel his presence. It is best to rest when you awaken the dead in thought and feeling. This is the poem I created.

My words lack the power and grace of Walt Whitman; but I am consoled by my intentions is good!  My effort is offered in respect and admiration of his Walt Whitman’s timeless talent, and timeless message of the unity across all life.  Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman.

Again!  . . . Again!

Hate’s fiery cauldron overflows!
Gettysburg, Manassas, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg?

More than places!
Sacred lands, defiled!
Unshaven old men, pimpled-scarred youth,
Blue or grey now red.
Bodies lying in heaps . . . or alone,
Limbless, moaning, seared souls,

Posterity captured:
Rifles in hand, pistols gripped, swords unsheathed,
Blood-stained rocks, smoldering earth, shattered trees.
Flies gathering to feast,
Buzzing amid charnel,
Reflexively choosing choice sites.


Brave soldiers march to cadenced drums.
Flags wave,
Artillery towed,
Medaled-generals salute,
“Charades” . . . I say!

Battles forgotten,
Triumph’s costs denied.
Music and verse:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory . . .”
“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton …
“Onward Christian soldiers . . .”

And in the background,
In shadows,
Time unchanged:

“Steal away, steal away; Steal away to . . .
“Deeeeppp river, Lord! My home is over Jordan.

“Illusions . . . delusions,” I say!
Podium, stage, pulpit,
Platforms for death and destruction;
Foundations for domination.

How inadequate Periclean words,
Unfit for all times.
Preserving lies,
Inspiring myths!
Nurturing cultures of war,
Cults of nations,
Food for empire!


Did you not see what I saw?
Endless rows of blood-stained sheets,
Gaunt nurses placating life,
Tears streaming from bedside widows
Hollow-eyed children begging for bread.

Damn the cannon makers!
Damn the smelters making them!
Damn the voices cheering their firing!
Guiltless . . .
Blind to their sullied metal fruit,
Deaf to cries,
Distance from shot to crater
Buffering conscience.

Make them walk brimstone,
Breathe fumes of seared flesh,
Beg for mercy,
Ask respite from hot metal,
Seek relief from scorched earth.

Make them know pain, suffering, death –
Avoided – escaped – denied,
Hidden amidst comforts:

Gilded rooms,
Leather chairs,
Polished tables,
“No, Sir!”
“Yes, Sir!”
“More, Sir?”
“Sherry, Sir?”


What use, conscience?
What value, brain?
What function, heart?
What glory, courage . . .
If ignored, denied, separated
From a silent human face.

A face, once admired and prized,
Bursting forth from a mother urging
Her swollen womb;
Grunting . . . screaming
Unfathomable mysteries,
Birthing life!
A face emerges!
Its future . . . inscribed.

Tear down your crosses, crescents, and sacred-angled stars

If you ignore their precepts!

Excuses for madness,
Salve for betrayal,
Gloves for stained hands
Veils for truth.

Fall upon your knees,
Beg forgiveness,
Failed prophets!
Flawed angels!
God pretenders,
Stainers of time!

Mortal art thou Man!
Blood, bone, sinew.
Spirit essence!


Sing the song of life!
Cast seeds upon the land,
Plant trees in barren hills,
Water fallow fields.

Look to mountains,
Forested woods,
Desert sands,
Mirrored lakes.
Gaze in wonder!

Inhale air,
Sip water,
Break bread,
Behold skies;
All else is vanity!

Go now!
Find your place
Walk tortoise paths,
Follow hare tracks,
Eat berries,
Create streams – drops!
Erase scars of war!

All is sacred!
Behold grandeur,
Fill senses with awe –
Failing this,
Know you never lived!

At end of day,
Earth will accept your
Crumbled remains,
And . . . try again!
And you will have no choice!

  1. (Walt Whitman’s Words)

“This is what you shall do:

Love the earth and sun and the animals,
Despise riches,
Give alms to everyone that asks,
Stand up for the stupid and crazy,
Devote your income and labor to others,
Hate tyrants, argue not concerning god,
Have patience and indulgence toward the people,
Re-examine all you have been told
At school or church or in any book,
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”  

— Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)



Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is my favorite poet, and in many ways, my favorite humanist. He witnessed the horrors of the American Civil War; their sights, sounds, and smells inspired his commitment to peace. But long before the War, his special senses gave voice to word for changing world about him. He captured time and times!

I find life in his every word, each line and verse, a sacred-clarion call to life! In his words, their pace, stridency, boldness, spring passionate observations, accusations, and visions of hope revealing uncommon and uncompromising courage and wisdom.

Herbert Levine published an inspiring commentary on Walt Whitman’s timeless contributions, entitled: “The Voice We Need Now: Whitman at 200.”  (Levine, H. (2019). Tikkun & The Voice of Spiritual Progressives, May 22, 2019)

In this America, we need a healthy dose of the countervailing idea expressed in our founding Declaration of Independence, what Whitman called our “organic compact” – that all humans are created equal. Just as President and lumberjack, man and woman, black, red or white, should be equals in a democratic universe, so too necessarily, soul and body, spirit and matter, death and life, God and humans. All things in the known universe and in the parts of it that remain unknown are equal. They all partake equally in the cosmos. They are all embodiments of a single reality — the continuum of matter-spirit, body-soul, life-death, God-human, time-space — which Whitman, following Emerson, chose to call “divine.” And if all who are conscious know that they partake of this single divine reality, then how can they let the greed of a few control their aspirations and shape their political and economic destiny. The success of Whitman’s poetry would be evident, he claimed, by the empowerment of those who read and understood him (Levine, 2019).

Nothing more needs to be said. Walt Whitman endures; humanity continues to at risk.


First published by TMS on 15 Dec 2014

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 May 2019.

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