A few weeks ago, a former student of mine posted a link to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” on Facebook. I clicked the link and was transported as Whitman intended me to be. I felt intimately in sync with the old poet as he’d hoped I would. I felt expanded and moved as he must have in writing it.
It’s been years since I’ve indulged in a poem. Maybe I’ve forgotten the magic of verse as I’ve aged. Maybe it feels frivolous – says the woman writing pulp adventure novels. Whatever the case, it was a poor decision to let poetry fall to the wayside.
The right poem can be alchemical. It can transform the way you see the world and the way you see yourself. It can deliver beauty and comfort and encouragement to you instantaneously in the midst of despair.
I’ve always loved Whitman, and “Song of the Open Road” feels like a love letter written to me across decades. But it isn’t just a love letter to me. That’s the beautiful thing about poems: they’re love letters we can share with one another to feel more connected, they’re passwords that we can use to find our spiritual family.
For the past week, I’ve spent time each morning reciting the poem to myself, adding one line at a time until I could repeat them all from memory. It’s given me time to ruminate on what Whitman was trying to express, to immerse myself in his imagination.
Today, I arrived at the final stanza of that section, the one that hadn’t particularly interested me at first:
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
As I recited it, I thought of Anthony Bourdain, whose suicide broke my heart this week. Like Whitman and myself, he had a passion for travel and for the richness of life’s experiences, but mostly, he had a deep interest in and compassion for other humans. And so, Whitman’s poem, written 162 years ago, spoke a sermon to me today that was as relevant as it was all those decades ago. It gave me a measure of comfort to take with me into a new week.