I read Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” while waiting for class to start during my sophomore year of high school. “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,” Whitman urged. The poem’s resolution landed somewhere in my chest, ringing behind my sternum. I wanted to print those words out and eat them. At the time, though I couldn’t say why, the poem felt like discovering an answer to my every unvoiced question.
Five years later, I am beginning to understand why this poem nestled so deeply in me. “The powerful play goes on…” Whitman’s selection of “play,” delights me. Not “procession,” or “history.” Nothing so static. A play is a conversation. All of its words, all of its actions, are performed in dialogue with that which came before and that which comes after. You cannot lift one line from a play without the context clinging to it like lint on a sweater.
A play, in other words, demonstrates that nothing exists in a vacuum. Over the years, I have found that reading proves the same point. The words of long-dead poets like Whitman are not static; they morph with each reading. Each time I return to “O Me! O Life!” I unearth a new revelation. I often turn to Ursula K. Le Guin’s ambiguous utopias for answers and solace. Though I have read and re-read her works, each reading changes depending on any number of things: the state of world politics, a movie I watched, a traumatizing event, the weather. We return to one another with new ideas when challenges arise. When my time to write arrives, I pen a letter through the years, building off and challenging the ideas of every author I’ve ever read, just as they have mine. People are not fixed points. Even after the final line has is written and the last edits made, neither is writing.
Whitman’s short poem, along with everything else I’ve read, taught me to situate myself in this play. Reading teaches us to understand the past as something alive even while looking towards the future. It is something we learn from and with, something we challenge and that challenges us. Whitman, prophet and poet, understood this intimately. Words are not written in a vacuum, nor are they read in one. The powerful play moves all around us at all times, as it always has. Understanding one’s place in it–both the importance of their individual role and the insignificance of their unlikely presence–is a lifelong effort. And our verse, our contribution to this sweeping human story, is determined by our interface with the past, our appreciation of the present, and our forging of the future.
This play has no final destination. Its outcome is in flux, decided by elections and ideas and protests and what you had for breakfast. Our very lives, reading shows us, are an act of creation, the creation of our inimitable verse.