OK now, time for some highbrow, high-falutin’ blibbity blab by yours truly, who loves nothing more than a little bit of found poetry!
Whitman, Alabama is an ongoing project by filmmaker Jennifer Crandall that simply asks random strangers if they’d like to read some poetry on camera. Instead of laughing in her face, an almost shockingly high percentage of them say yes. And then they recite a verse from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” directly into the camera. It’s almost impossibly beautiful, and the cumulative effect of it can be a little overwhelming. I find I can only watch two or three of the (quite short) films before I start circling the “Wait, what am I doing with my life?” drain.
It’s a project that is not without built-in pitfalls, each pretty deftly handled. Walt Whitman himself is not without controversy, and Crandall addresses why she chose this poem (and why she chose Alabama) in the “About” section of the site. And while a lot of the designated readers are clearly not familiar with the poem at all (one is quite surprised at the “19th century porn” he’s first asked to read; they give him another verse instead), the project never stoops to condescension. I think it achieves the exact opposite—having this most American of poems read simply and forthrightly by this vastly diverse group of people manages to glorify both ends of the classic writer/reader relationship. They exist and thrive together.
Here’s Verse 1, read by Virginia Mae Schmitt.
The project is not yet complete. The 52 “Song of Myself” verses are not being filmed in order, so there are some famous ones still missing. You can sign up to be notified about newly uploaded verses, but you won’t mind the hopscotch verse-here, verse-there nature of it; the power is in the recitations. Drug court judges and defendants, spelunkers, female NASA engineers, Tuskegee football players, young children just hanging out on a playground. Everybody can read a poem and everybody can read this one. Poetry is large and it contains multitudes.