Walt Whitman and the Author of “Eat, Pray, Love”

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert gave an interesting speech for TED, a non-profit organization that brings together entertainers, inventors, writers, and politicians for conferences at which they all speak and share ideas. Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea was that we should nurture the creative genius in all of us rather than hail only a select few as all-mighty geniuses. She suggests that we expect far too much from a small group of society when we should be recognizing and developing the brilliance that exists in all of us.

This whole idea reminds me of Whitman, and in particular the poems “To a Certain Cantatrice” and “I Hear America Singing.”  In “To a Certain Cantatrice” Whitman is addressing a Madame Alboni, one the nineteenth century’s most gifted opera singers. In this poem he emphasizes the importance of Alboni’s talent even in comparison with a “hero, speaker or general…the progress and freedom of the race.” Apparently Whitman was so moved by opera he cited it as one of the most important influences on his writing.

In “I Hear America Singing” Whitman is also highlighting the value of individualism in a way Elizabeth Gilbert might appreciate. The poem praises carpenters, shoemakers, masons, and mothers for the way that they are, “Each singing what belongs to her and to none else.” I find it inspiring that Whitman and Gilbert see poetic beauty and genius in “ordinary” people regardless of their occupation.

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