The mother of American poetry.
The mother of American poetry. Hulton Archive / GETTY IMAGES

I know. The third inordinately talented, prodigiously prolific, celestially gifted, gay white male poet on the blog in a row. But yet again, circumstance has forced my hand here a little.

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When Gov. Inslee ordered us all on Monday to "stay home" for the next two weeks, he quoted half a line from "Song of Myself, 33," saying, "Be of good cheer, we will not desert you." Here, Whitman is himself quoting a skipper who had saved a bunch of lives from a steamship wreckage. The poet then goes on to praise the boatswain for his large-heartedness and courage, qualities the Governor wanted to instill within us.

While Whitman was good at whipping up the sense of solidarity we all need to maintain right now (and always), his experience as a battlefield nurse during the Civil War may better serve those currently dealing with the dying, who have been filling up hospitals lately. To help me think about that, I always turn to another poem from Whitman, "To One Shortly To Die," which you can find in Whitman's book, Leaves of Grass, available at local bookstores.

A few thoughts:

• In this poem, Whitman's speaker is both a nurse and the grim reaper. Rather than swaddling the dying subject with false hope, he gets straight to it: "You are to die—Let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate, / I am exact and merciless, but I love you—There is no escape for you." This directness shocks me every time I read this poem. Poets so often treat the dying moment somberly, but here Whitman trades mournfulness for urgency in a way that somehow dignifies the moment, makes it more about the person dying than the one witnessing the death.

• You have to read this poem as quickly as possible, with the speed and energy of someone wrapping up a wound.

• Just like the sun in the third stanza, the word "excrementitious" comes out of nowhere, and I love it every time I come across it. In this line he's saying: when you die your body will turn to shit, your but your soul will have escaped! You'll be out of this fucking place! And the word "excrementitious," because it sort of sounds like a dismissive curse, pleasingly reflects this buoyantly dismissive attitude.

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• This poem is also a good lesson in tone. After the triumphant turn, where the sun has burst forth in "unlooked-for directions"—after Whitman has somehow got us all pumped to die, mostly by removing the shame of dying—he lets anxiety and shadow creep for a moment when he says, "You do not see the medicines—you do not mind the weeping friends." Those lines bring us back to reality, but they also dampen the mood for a second, but only so his triumphant conclusion can hit harder.

• The sentiment at the end, where Whitman congratulates the living for dying—like we're supposed to!—rather than commiserating with the dying for dying, is impossible to do in life. I couldn't imagine taking this tone if I'm ever lucky or unlucky enough to watch someone I love die. But there is something so dignified here in telling someone shortly to die that they're doing the right thing, that they're in the right place, that they're not making some mistake just by dying.

• Whitman was an awful racist. There's no getting around that. Even though he asserts, as always, his oneness with all people and things in the poem Inslee quoted, saying, "I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs," he just was a racist. But that fact, too, is instructive, as it shows how even people with effusively democratic and inclusive-sounding poetic projects can be full of shit.