Elizabeth Alexander, American poet and playwright, is born
Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy
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.
After completing the activities in this lesson plan, students will be able to:
Describe one aspect of Whitman's poetics in relation to I Hear America Singing (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/i-hear-america-singing)
Make a comparison between Langston Hughes' goal in Let America Be America Again (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again) and Whitman's in I Hear America Singing
Discuss the democratizing effect of early photography and relate that to Whitman's poetry
How does Whitman's poetry and the poems of others influenced by him reflect Whitman's notion of a democratic poem?
History & Social Studies
Literature & Language Arts
Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe
"Small is my theme – yet has it the sweep of the universe"
—Walt Whitman's notebook, page 19 LOC #94
"… no ideas but in things"
—"Paterson" by William Carlos Williams
Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. As he declared in Democratic Vistas, "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. …" Whitman wanted his poetry to explore important ideas with "the sweep of the universe" (as the Europeans did), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the individual experience and feeling ("small in theme").
As is suggested by the second quotation above, Whitman's ideas and example had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American writers. But to what extent does Whitman's own poetry fulfill his stated goal of combining universal themes with the closely rendered details of personal experience and feeling? In this lesson, students will attempt to answer that question by working with his words in a variety of media. To help them appreciate his artistic practice, students will also have an opportunity to compose poetry modeled on the poet's characteristic method of using the notebooks as a source of the personal experience and universal themes explored in his poems.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy. 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. Additionally, PBS's "American Experience" has created a special on Walt Whitman from which additional resources can be drawn.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:
Give examples to clarify what Whitman meant by "small in theme yet has it the sweep of the universe."
Discuss some of the different media in which Whitman wrote and compare his work in each.
Compose an original poem from a student notebook entry.
How does Whitman's poetry reflect his attempt to combine universal themes with the individual experiences and feelings?
How did Whitman use his experiences of the Civil War in his poetry?
History & Social Studies
Literature & Language Arts
Whitman’s Echoes in the Inaugural Poem “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander
In 1860, the original version of “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman rhythmically celebrated common citizens as they went about their daily lives as individuals and as part of the American whole. Flash forward to January 2009 when President Barack Obama gave his first inaugural address to the nation—echoing Whitman’s poetic style. For that inaugural ceremony, poet Elizabeth Alexander was asked to write and deliver an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” that also echoes Whitman. Despite the different time periods and differences in issues facing our country, Whitman’s poetic style continues to resonate with modern America. This lesson explores those echoes within a 21st-century inaugural speech and poem as they anticipate the future of a renewed American community.
This lesson plan provides a sequence of activities that you can use with your students before, during, and after reading “Praise Song for the Day.” Use the whole sequence, or any of the activities, to help learners enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. This lesson can be adapted for secondary students in grades 6–12.
This lesson is an adaptation of an original lesson by the Academy of American Poet’s Educator in Residence, Madeleine Fuchs Holzer.
Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.
Students will identify poetic elements in a speech.
Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video.
Students will synthesize echoes from Whitman’s poetry that appear in 21st-century inaugural poetry and speech.
Students will explore inaugural poetry as lens through which America can look forward to renewal.
What does it mean to be an individual with connections to a larger community?
Literature & Language Arts
“Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (video)
This video of Elizabeth Alexander reading the poem “Praise Song for the Day” that she composed for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony is the seventh in the “Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community” series. The companion lesson contains a sequence of activities for use with secondary students before, during, and after reading and listening to the poem.