12/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Poem For Election Day

Walt Whitman lived in that tenuous time before flag pins when threshing the patriots from the terrorist-loving socialists was a difficult business. So John McCain and Sarah Palin, no doubt, would have had a hard time deciding if they should accept the great grandfather of American poetry into their ranks. On the one hand, Whitman certainly looked liked one of their "real Americans." But on the other hand, well, it's safe to say he would vote no on California's proposition eight.

Leaving the McCain/Palin world and re-entering reality, you couldn't read Whitman's short poem "America" and not see how he loved this country.

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

There's really no question whom Whitman would have voted for.

Last week, I noted the poignancy of Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too, Sing America" in these last days of the election. Hughes' poem was a bold challenge to racism, written just over 50 years ago, and I think he may have had Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" in mind when he wrote it. Hughes wanted to make it known that African Americans are a part of that song.

We are now on the verge of taking a monumental step forward for African Americans in this country, and I hope that we are also on the verge of becoming a more tolerant, compassionate, and united America (despite McCain's best efforts to the contrary).

Reading "I Hear America Singing," (published in Leaves of Grass in 1900) it's hard not to think of Election Day, which is a song of sorts. It's a chance for all Americans to be heard on equal terms. Imperfect as the process is, and downright ugly as it can become, "I Hear America Singing" reminds us that our democracy is also quite remarkable.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics--each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat--the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench--the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter's song--the ploughboy's, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother--or of the young wife at work--or of the girl sewing or washing--Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day--At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Now get out there and join the chorus.