Closer Readings Commentary

Let Freedom Ring! Democracy in the poetry of Hughes and Whitman

EDSITEment’s Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy considers if there is such a thing as ‘a democratic poem.” It’s a good question. Can the spirit and fervor and idealism of our democratic principles, hard won over and over again through conflict, war, sacrifice, and death be captured within the confines of poem?

Both Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes appear on the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts for grades 6–8. Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks (Appendix B).

This application speaks to the following Anchor Standard:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Let’s compare the approaches found within these two quintessential American poetic voices in the following poems dealing with “democratic” themes: Walt Whitman's I Hear America Singing and Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again, available from EDSITEment-reviewed American Academy of Poets.

Through Whitman, we hear the voices of disparate Americans from many walks of life caroling out their unique “American mouth-songs,” as Whitman refers to them in his first version. His poem exudes the optimism of citizens happily occupied in gainful work “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” Whitman’s upbeat message portrays a country where people are free to follow their bliss and do so unimpeded.

Hughes poem has a different story to tell. His America is a country “of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak” and no equal opportunity. This poem beseeches the nation to make good on its broken promises to “the free” that are not free. Hughes speaks for immigrants, “the millions who have nothing for our pay—except the dream that’s almost dead today,” pining for an America yet to be. Despite the grim reality, Hughes believes in national redemption and envisions a homeland with an authentic American Dream open to all.

Can these poets who raise their voices in two very different songs and render two very different Americas both be considered “democratic?”

Turn to Activity 3. “Poems for a Democracy” for a comparison of the voices of Whitman and Hughes and their different poetic visions. The companion worksheet, Comparing Two American Poems, is a useful tool for analyzing the poems and serves as an aid to students who need help sorting through the similarities and differences in the poets’ approaches to this topic. Find words and lines in “I Hear America Singing” and “Let America Be America Again” and have students cite evidence from the poem to support their reasoning and help shape their statements. If they do not find any supporting details or if they come across outright contradictions in the poem, there is a place on the worksheet to note that as well.

What makes a poem “democratic”?

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Once each student has a grasp on how Hughes’s approach both reflects and differs with Whitman's notion of a proper subject for poetry, they can apply inductive reasoning to answer the larger question: What is a “democratic” poem? Consult EDSITEment-reviewed Whitman Archive for a critical essay on the democratic character of Whitman’s verse and use EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation’s The Black Poet as Canon-Maker for a portrait of Hughes. Using their working knowledge of these two examples of democratic poems and iconic American poets, engage students in a large group discussion to come up with a list of criteria for what constitutes “democratic poetry.” Using evidence compiled earlier in Comparing Two American Poems, discuss if/how each poet is a representative spokesperson of “democracy” and the American Dream.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.9: Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.

Noting Whitman’s profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets, offer students three additional modern poems from EDSITEment-reviewed The Academy of American Poets for further comparison. Analyze each poem and apply the criteria students have established for “democratic poetry” to determine if these poems fit within it:

Lesson extenders

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

Open Extending the Lesson for an engaging creative writing activity. To compose their own democratic poems, students draw on a particular group of people from their life experience. They may model their poem on the structure and craft of master poets studied in this application. (i.e., “I hear the athletes practicing / the relay anchor with his wind sprints / the soccer midfielder.”)

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

A culminating activity would be a large group poetry reading combining student’s original poem with published poems, such as I Hear America Singing, that inspired or connect strongly with them.