Democracy in the Poetry of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes
I say it plain,
American never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
From “Let America Be America Again”
Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy considers if there is such a thing as a democratic poem. Can the spirit and fervor and idealism of America’s democratic principles, hard won over and over again through conflict, war, sacrifice, and death be captured within the confines of poetry?
Let’s compare the approaches found within these two quintessential American poetic voices in the following poems where they each deal with democratic themes in their own way: Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” available from EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.
Through Whitman, we hear the voices of Americans from all walks of life caroling out their unique “American mouth-songs,” as Whitman refers to this disparate singing in his first version of the poem published in 1860, and available from the NEH-funded Walt Whitman Archive. His poem exudes the optimism of citizens 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. His poem beseeches the nation to make good on its broken promises to “the free” who are not free. Hughes becomes the voice of 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, this poet believes in the potential for 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. From Whitman to Hughes 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.
(Aligns with 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.)
What makes a poem “democratic”?
Once each student has a grasp on how Hughes’ 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 the EDSITEment-reviewed Whitman Archive for a critical essay on the democratic character of Whitman’s verse and use the 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.
(Aligns with 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.)
Noting Whitman and Hughes’ profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets, offer students three additional modern poems from the EDSITEment-reviewed 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:
- “miss rosie,” by Lucille Clifton
- “The Women Who Clean Fish,” by Erica Funkhouser
- “Shirt,” by Robert Pinsky
(Aligns with 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.)
Writing democratic poems
For an engaging creative writing activity turn to the Extending the Lesson section. To compose their own democratic poems, have 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.”)
(Aligns with 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.)
An optional culminating activity would be a large group poetry reading which combines students’ original poetry with published poetry, such as “I Hear America Singing,” that inspired them.
(Aligns with 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 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.)
Both Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes appear on the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts for Poetry grades 6–8. Text Exemplars (Appendix B).