Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”


The Poem Stuck in My Head


A polling place in New York ca. 1900.

A reminder: Walt Whitman really, really liked Election Day. Nothing could quicken the man’s pulse like a good showing at the polls.

As “Election Day, November, 1884” has it, he preferred the spectacle of democracy—the “ballot-shower from East to West”—to any of our nation’s natural wonders, including, but not limited to, Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Lakes … you name it, Whitman thought the vote was better than it. (You’d think someone could’ve sold him on the Rockies, at least.) One can imagine a latter-day Whitman passing up a trip to the Grand Canyon and instead hunkering down at the TV, flipping anxiously from network to network as the precincts begin to report, wringing his hands. Not, mind you, that he would have any particular stake in the outcome; he’d just be along for the great democratic ride, clucking his tongue at the gerrymanderers of the world.

(If you need an antidote for all this unalloyed patriotism, try Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day,” which contains, among many excellent lines, “The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on election day.” I know which poet would get my vote.)

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
         scene and show,
’Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
         your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
         loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—
         nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name— the
still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
         quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
         —Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:)
         the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
         heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.