Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman.

Credit: Courtesy of the American Memory Collection.

I will… go with drivers and boatmen and men that catch fish or work in fields. I know they are sublime."
—From Walt Whitman's Notebook Page 65, LOC #80, available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory

"Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself."
—From the Biography of Langston Hughes, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Academy of American Poets

Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. As he declared in Democratic Vistas, available on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia: "America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing. She seems singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, manners, etc., appropriate for former conditions and for European lands, are but exiles and exotics here…." In the same document, he attacks the poets of his day as "genteel little creatures" who do not speak for the great democratic mass of Americans--the drivers, boatmen, and field-workers whom Whitman, in the first quotation above, calls "sublime." It is from this great democratic mass, he suggests, that new forms of art and poetry--a new conception of the sublime--will arise.

Did Whitman in his own poetry succeed in creating a revolutionary, original, and truly American form of verse? However we answer the question, it is certain that the example of the "Good Grey Poet" has had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets. In this lesson, students will explore the idea of "democratic poetry" by reading Whitman's words in a variety of media, examining daguerreotypes taken circa 1850, and comparing the poetic concepts and techniques behind Whitman's I Hear America Singing and Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again. Finally, using similar poetic concepts and techniques, students will have an opportunity create a poem from material in their own experience.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe. To make this lesson plan more compelling and fascinating for students, teachers should screen the brilliant Whitman episode from the NEH-funded series Visions and Voices (scroll down to "12. Walt Whitman") at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Learner.org. There is a log-in process required to access the actual movie, but the registration is free and provides entree to a wealth of educator resources.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Whitman's poetry and the poems of others influenced by him reflect Whitman's notion of a democratic poem?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the worksheet, Comparing Two American Poems, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • For background information on the life and poetry of Walt Whitman, consult the following EDSITEment resources:
  • The EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory provides information About Whitman's Notebooks, including the following excerpts:
    In these typical writer's notebooks, Whitman jotted down thoughts in prose and expressions in poetry. The earliest examples include journalistic entries with ideas for articles he might write. His first trial lines for what would soon become part of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass appear in an early notebook (LC #80) which bears an internal date of 1847; it was his habit, however, to use these notebooks over a number of years, filling in blank pages at will, and the remarkable trial flights of verse for "Song of Myself" in it are likely to date closer to 1854.

    In the Civil War years, he was more apt to carry tiny notebooks in his shirt pocket in which he took notes about the needs and wants of wounded soldiers whom he visited and comforted in the hospitals in and near Washington, D.C. In these he noted what treats a soldier might like on the next visit--raspberry syrup, rice-pudding, notepaper and pencil--or notes and addresses of family to whom Whitman would then write in place of the gravely wounded or dead young man. Occasionally he would also describe scenes on the battlefield, probably from reports from others in the camps.
    American Memory also provides information about Daguerreotypes, including the following excerpts:
    [Daguerreotypes] occasionally document American laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. The subjects of occupational daguerreotypes pose with the tools of their trade or goods that they have made. Most occupational daguerreotypes depict tradesmen, such as cobblers, carpenters, and blacksmiths …

    Nineteenth-century paintings, prints, and illustrations of the American working class often presented idealized and heroicized images. In contrast, this daguerreotype of a locksmith with his scrawny arms, grave demeanor, and stained apron provides a different perspective on the nineteenth-century American tradesman.

American Memory provides information about Civil War photography as well in Taking Photographs at the Time of the Civil War.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Democratic Vistas
What has filled, and fills today our intellect, our fancy, furnishing the standards therein, is yet foreign. The great poems, Shakespeare included, are poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life-blood of democracy. The models of our literature, as we get it from other lands, ultra-marine, have had their birth in courts, and basked and grown in a castle sunshine; all smells of princes' favors.—Walt Whitman, from Democratic Vistas, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia

As an anticipatory exercise, discuss with your students the different values that we give to paintings versus photographs. Ask students how many of them have a painted portrait of themselves at home. Ask students how many of them have a photograph of themselves at home. Why do so many more people have photographs? How many people have photographs of themselves doing something (playing a sport for example)? Why is it so rare to see a portrait of someone doing something such as playing a sport? How many people have photographs of themselves at different ages? Why is it so rare to see a series of portraits of someone at different ages?

Share with the class the following commentary about Whitman and the democratizing art of photography from the Walt Whitman Archive, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia:

He would often comment about how photography was part of an emerging democratic art, how its commonness, cheapness, and ease was displacing the refined image of art implicit in portrait painting: "I think the painter has much to do to go ahead of the best photographs." … Painted portraits were for the privileged classes, and even the wealthy did not have their portraits painted regularly; the one or two they had done over a lifetime had to distill their character in an approximation that transcended time. But photographs were the property of all classes.

… The camera, like Whitman's poetry, democratized imagery, suggesting that anything was worth a photograph.

—Ed Folsom, Introduction to the Whitman Image Gallery from the Walt Whitman Archive, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia

Working in small groups, students should use the Photo Analysis Worksheet available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom to study one of the following images from the EDSITEment resource American Memory (NOTE: The links provided will take you to a bibliography page with a thumbnail photo. Click on the photo for access to larger images.):

In all of these photos, the subject faces the camera directly; we do not, for example, see the seamstress working at her sewing. Some of the subjects seem as if they are about to speak.

Have each group imagine what the subjects might be saying, in the form of a monologue or a dialogue with the photographer. If desired, create a multimedia presentation for live performance or a computer slide show, using the images accompanied by readings of the students' work.

Activity 2. Drivers and Boatmen and Farmers… ... Oh My!
Whitman anticipated the significance of photography for the development of American democracy; his poetry moved with the invention, and he learned valuable lessons from the photographers he knew.

—Ed Folsom, Introduction to the Whitman Image Gallery from the Walt Whitman Archive, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia

Whitman was fascinated by the new medium of photography, sat for many photographs throughout his life, even—according to Ed Folsom in his Introduction to the Whitman Image Gallery on the Walt Whitman Archive, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia—"after wandering through a daguerreotype gallery in 1846, struck by the 'great legion of human faces—human eyes gazing silently but fixedly upon you,' (he) mused: 'We love to dwell long upon them—to infer many things, from the text they preach—to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them.'"

A photographic portrait made one wonder about the person portrayed. Photography suggested "that anything was worth a photograph." Whitman believed that virtually anything could serve as a subject in poetry. He regarded the working class, for example, an especially worthy subject (see the quote from Whitman's notebook below); images of real individuals, like those in the daguerreotype gallery, are central to many of Whitman's poems.

Share with students as much information as you deem appropriate to help them see the connection between Whitman's poetics and photography.

Before you read aloud Whitman's I Hear America Singing, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of The Academy of American Poets, ask students to imagine the poem were written to accompany some photographs. What would those photographs have been? After the reading, ask students to recall images from the poem that could have been photographs such as the daguerreotypes students viewed in Activity 1.

Discuss with the class basic information about Whitman's notebooks as noted in the fourth bulleted section in Preparing to Teach This Lesson. Then share the following quote from Page 65 of Notebook LOC #80, available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. (If desired, share the actual page image with the students either on the computer or through a handout of the downloaded image.)

I will not discuss any professors and capitalists—I will turn up the ends of my trousers around my boots, and my cuffs back from my wrists and go with drivers and boatmen and men that catch fish or work in fields. I know they are sublime.

Re-read, or have student volunteers read aloud, I Hear America Singing. How does Whitman fulfill his goal to "go with drivers and boatmen and men that catch fish"? In what way does the "democracy" of such a poem compare to the "democracy" of photography discussed in Activity 1?

Were "drivers and boatmen and men that catch fish" something new as poetic subjects? Perhaps not--some of Whitman contemporaries were including working-class subjects, and earlier in the nineteenth century the English poet Wordsworth and his followers had explored the lives of ordinary English people. While not without precedent, then, Whitman's radicalism in form and subject went beyond the Romantic models. By way of example, share the poem Poetry by L.H. Sigourney (1791-1865), available on the EDSITEment resource The American Verse Project. The subject is poetry. Abstractions such as "Death" and "Morn" perform some of the action in the poem. The two human characters (a young girl and a pilgrim) are given no individual characteristics, serving instead as metaphors (for romantics, for seekers). It's also worthwhile to note that the poem is written in a strict form with eight-line stanzas and a repeated rhyme scheme. Whitman rarely used forms after he developed his poetic philosophy. Other common subjects in 19th-century poetry were characters from the Bible, literature, and mythology; heroes; and nobles. (Some examples you could share with the students, if desired, include Judith by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) and Death of the Prince Imperial by Abram Joseph Ryan (1836-1886), both available on the EDSITEment resource The American Verse Project.)

Activity 3. From Whitman to Hughes

Now, share this quote from the Biography of Langston Hughes, available on the EDSITEment resource The Academy of American Poets:

Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

How does Hughes' approach reflect Whitman's notion of what should be the proper subject for poetry? How is it different?

Share with the class Hughes' poem Let America Be America Again from the EDSITEment-reviewed website of The Academy of American Poets. Is the poem closer to a discussion of "professors" or of "boatmen?"

In what ways are Hughes' and Whitman's poems similar? In what ways are they different? Have students address these questions by filling in the chart "Comparing Two American Poems: 'I Hear America Singing' and 'Let America Be America Again'" on page 1 of the PDF.

(NOTE: If you want to extend the comparison with Whitman to some contemporary poems, consult the first bulleted item in Extending the Lesson, below. If you want your students to write poems modeled after Whitman, consult the second bulleted item.)

Extending The Lesson

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Media analysis
  • Poetry analysis
  • Visual analysis
Authors
  • MMS (AL)