In Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing”, he writes of “the varied carols” he hears, ”each singing what belongs to him or her, and to none else/Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs”.
Whitman’s chorus is populated by mechanics and mothers, carpenters and shoemakers—a suspiciously idyllic selection given the context of the time. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, where this poem appears, was printed in 1855. The Civil War was just a few years away, and there were certainly other refrains being chanted that were less in harmony with Whitman’s America.
The hallmark of Whitman’s poetry is the wide-ranging gaze, the optimistic vision that accounts for almost all elements of American society, and does so with an air of celebration. Today, no poet embodies that spirit more than Yasiin Bey, who was formerly known as Mos Def, and whose work catalogs the full spectrum of American experience, often times in a single verse.
In a song called “Respiration,” Mos Def places the powerful and the powerless in concert with each other-- “mercenaries paid to trade hot stock tips,” alongside pickpockets; and invoking the nightly newscasts that “spotlight the savages” and NASDAQ averages.
America is still singing, but we’ve moved on to a different verse.
The breadth of Mos Def’s vision may feel overwhelming or incongruous at times. But in the spirit of Whitman, a fitting response might be: “Does he contradict himself? Very well, then he contradicts himself. He is large, he contains multitudes.”