Walt Whitman and Warsan Shire

The themes, imagery, and metaphors seen throughout Whitman and Shire’s poetry could not be more different. Before even discussing formal features, I feel a sense of unity when reading Whitman’s poetry, specifically “I Hear America Singing” and “For You O Democracy.” However, in Shire’s “Conversations About Home,” not only is there a lack of unity, but there seems to be a purposeful sense of disunity, or lack of belonging. Donald Pease in his article “Walt Whitman’s Revisionary Democracy,” discusses how Whitman’s sentence structure in “Song of Myself” creates a sense of unity when he says, “The separate phrases in this prolonged sentence do not represent but associate individuals. They draw single, separate persons, otherwise silently passing each other by, into a larger social movement. As these persons and the parts of speech with which they are associated gather mass, they do not remain separated. The kinetic energy flooding through successive social figure binds them together” (Pease, 155). This sentence structure is also seen in “I Hear America Singing” when Whitman says,

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck…”

Although these people are all different and come from different backgrounds, they are all singing the same song “involving each individual in a more inclusive identity” (Pease, 155-156).

However, this inclusive identity does not exist for Shire. Instead she says of home, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” (Shire, 24). Instead of hearing everyone “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs,” she hears “go home,” she hears them say, “fucking immigrants, fucking refugees” (Shire, 27). Instead of using metaphors like “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America… I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,” as Whitman does in “For You O Democracy,” Shire compares these countries to “uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep” (Shire, 25). The imagery and metaphors present throughout “Conversations About Home” serve to give us the same sense of unbelonging Shire feels when she writes, “I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing” (Shire, 26).

Despite all the differences between Whitman and Shire, I felt “the love of comrades” when reading Whitman, as much as I felt “a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs” when reading Shire.

 

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