I confess that my familiarity with Walt Whitman has waned since graduating from college. As so often happens with friends made at school, lives take different paths, links are broken, and memories of foolish exploits fade into clouded recollections made years later.
Whitman and I had known each other in the middling years of college, the time after the freshman confusion of buildings, professors, and textbooks but before the rushing pre-flight check and take-off of graduation. It is a time defined by marching — to class, to work, to the library, to the labs, study halls, and to the tradition-soaked bar to catch the 9:30 pm college-town band from Austin. It is a time when marching can replace thinking. Leaves of Grass was on sale at the campus bookstore when my pockets just happened to contain $3.09, mostly quarters. What the hell I thought. His name is whispered in literary halls.
It is a long book filled with free-range poetry which adheres to a structure only Whitman could consistently identify (even if he did not reveal it). Having crossed the threshold of fighting the Man and his imposed structures to embracing the challenge of writing within strong literary forms and traditions, I at first found Whitman lazy. It is easy to ignore constraints and call the result “poetry” (or “art”), but how much discipline and skill is behind the expression? For me, Song of Myself was less about the content and more about the failure in form, and for a few weeks Walt sat buried under a Fortran book.
After my Survey of English Literature II mid-term, I picked Walt back up again, ignored the form and chased the content. (Call it an overdose of Tintern Abbey.) Leaves of Grass is subtle joy that crashes against quiet rage at the plight of man set against the open country of America in the late 19th century. More succinctly, Walt captures the astonishment of life by experiencing it in a way Milton and other consecrated poets did not or could not.
So I came to know Walt in those middling marching years at school. Why not ditch poly sci and spend time at the park breathing in the fall air, exhaling thoughts of, uh, humanism? Something relevant and as far away from the scowling professor hunched over the lecturn that itself oozed wisdom gained from the lecturing of many grizzled professors over some some fifty years. Walt was on the right track; better to learn from the trees and the journeyman electrician climbing down the electrical conduit behind the fountain.
Song of Myself
It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.
What is known I strip away,
I launch all men and women forward with me into the Un-
The clock indicates the moment—but what does eternity indi-
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
There are trillions ahead, and trillians ahead of them.
– Walt Whitman, from canto 44
Eternity woven across eons of the past and the limitless potential of future eons invokes images of career-making efforts in any profession. Eternity is especially appropriate for software development; who hasn’t been cast on a project with a timeline measured in years and months rather than months and days? Whether I have joined a project en march or at conception, the Microsoft Project schedule thrown on the wall in a tapestry of 8.5 x 11 inch paper and Scotch tape always evokes a farway look of eternity, of milestones, tools, and integration testing. And of user acceptance testing and final signoff after which the spoils are divided and the post mortem bell sounds.
So too with the life of the software consultant:
Song of the
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querolous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
– Walt Whitman, from canto 1
If this excerpt from Song of the Open Road does not touch a common nerve in your soul you must ask yourself if you are still alive. Who hasn’t walked away from a project (no matter the outcome) thinking about the freedom of the open road and the next project? Done with indoor complaints, (mandated software) libraries, querolous criticisms…
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world,
Nor life, nore force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample are the fields of nature.
– Walt Whitman
This written when the poet was in his 70’s. Speaking as he does, Walt makes it easy to apply this to any aspect of life that the reader chooses. That is, after all, why he ranks as a Very Good Poet. I would argue that in software projects and life, time can be lost. Time must be weighed and accounted for, and time away from the project must be fought for and well-used.
And now Walt joins Dylan as a potential patron poet. After this, should we consider others?
Could you turn away Petrarch, Milton, Frost, Lorca, Eliot…others?