Workshop Number: 6
Leaders: Su Penn
Who May Register?: Open to All
Worship/Worship-Sharing: 10%
Lecture: 10%
Discussion: 80%

Who May Attend?
half gathering attenders welcome

Half-Gathering Attenders Welcome:
First half (Monday-Wednesday)
Second half (Wednesday/Thursday-Friday)

Walt Whitman’s epic poem is an all-encompassing celebration of nature, humanity, the spirit, the body, the soul. It calls us, Quakers and mystics, the cynical and the wide-eyed. It challenges us and encourages us. Come read it with me. Teens: I want you! Give me and Uncle Walt a try.

Workshop Description

“Song of Myself” is a long and complex poem. It can be daunting to think of approaching it alone. My objective for the week is, first, simply to help people feel up to the challenge of reading a work of this kind, to offer a space for the reading and an assurance from someone who has been through the poem before–many times–that it can be done, that the poem is intelligible, coherent, meaningful, faithful, and lovely.

But, more deeply, I hope that through reading in a spirit of worship people may see some of what I see in this poem: the value of Whitman’s struggle to reconcile the degrading and the evil with the goodness of creation, the beauty of his expressions of faith in God, the power of his portrait of ecstatic mystical union. I hope that the poem will call to people’s own struggles, their own faith, their own answers.

I know that the poem speaks to the theme of this year’s Gathering, “Listen, That We May Live”: The themes of listening and speaking, silence and speech, weave through the whole poem.They are in a fascinating tension, in which Whitman wants us to listen to him but also, and more importantly, to ourselves. He offers himself as a companion in exploration, not a lecturer. He wants us to see what he sees, and make what we will of it.

I also know, however, that we can’t predict which themes of the poem will be most meaningful for us; that always depends on the group reading it. It is always a journey of both the known and the unexpected.

There is no need to read the poem before arriving at the Gathering, though you may if you wish, as we will read it together.

I will bring copies of the poem for each participant.

A note on race and racism:

As part of becoming an anti-racist faith community FGC asks us to consider how our work together can address that goal. Questions of race always come up when we read Whitman, as this poem includes enslaved people, both those still in bondage and those seeking their freedom, as well as at least one image of what is likely a free Black man. He also speaks in multiple places, respectfully, of Native Americans, and includes a scene that has been called “the first inter-racial marriage depicted in American literature.”

However, his attention to race in the poem is fragmentary and somewhat ambivalent, despite his emphasis on freedom. Here, as elsewhere, he evokes sometimes our admiration and sometimes our disappointment.

More interesting, perhaps, is the way that American poets of color have embraced, rejected, and wrestled with Whitman. Black poets like Langston Hughes and June Jordan, as well as Native writers like Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, and many others, have written poems and essays responding to his work, often with a mix of respect, admiration, and disappointment at how partial his commitment to racial equality was.

I’ll provide a reading packet with a selection of some of these works, and we will find time during the week to refer to it, perhaps as part of our discussion when we reach relevant sections of the poem. I don’t want others’ reading of the poem to eclipse our own; our primary task is to let the poem work on us. But we can judiciously, and fruitfully, draw on others to enhance our appreciation, understanding, inspiration, and rightful criticism.

Leader Experience

I first led a workshop on “Song of Myself” at the 1999 Gathering, and have offered it perhaps four times in the years since. I’ve been leading poetry workshops and writing workshops for a very long time now, as well as facilitating community groups. I’m good at it. I’m interested in the people who join me, and want to hear their perspectives, and I enjoy introducing people to works they may not be familiar with, or, in the case of something like “Song of Myself,” may find daunting.

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