Singing Your Own Song

We went to see a world premier play at the Milwaukee Rep last night: American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith. It was beautifully written and moving, and performed by only one actor, the talented James Devita, whose career I have been following since we were both students in Milwaukee. It was a powerful theatrical experience about which I have only one quibble. But this is not a theatrical review blog, and what matters is that you should go, if you can. You will weep.

But what actually came away with me on the deepest level, former English major that I am, was the long and loving reference to Walt Whitman.

This sounds a little silly, but I had forgotten about Walt Whitman.

I grew up reading Walt Whitman, often, and with gradually increasing understanding. At first I just loved the rhythms of the poetry. I was carried along by his passion. Then I fell in love with what it was.

I am annoyed by people who ask: “What is the poet trying to say?” My slightly irritable answer is: He’s not trying to say anything. He’s saying it. The poem is what he says.

And this is why imbuing a message in art which is not intrinsically involved in the art itself can be dangerous. But Whitman was not delivering a message. He was writing poetry. The poetry IS the message. At least it is, if it’s done well.

I taught Whitman’s poetry as a high school American Lit teacher. And even now, I am a great–possibly overly-enthused–re-reader of many things. But Walt Whitman has not entered my thoughts for too many years now, and last night I re-encountered him with a fresh heart.

The play quotes a line from Leaves of Grass, in which the songs of people in different lives sing out in their own voices to make the joyous melody of freedom, of individual value and dignity: Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. I loved that Murray-Smith celebrated that celebration of America.

Pali, the poetry-writing ferry captain in my books, is a man who sings songs, whose work vibrates with a unique and beautiful voice. The question is: whose voice is it?

I love this question more than any of the others. The mysteries of life delight me.


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