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Adventures in American Poetry 101
Mike Orlock

When my students needed him most,
Walt Whitman was nowhere to be found.
He’d resided for the longest time
in the section on “Post-Civil War Literature,”
tucked comfortably between selected poems
of Emily Dickinson and three excerpts from
the vast literary canon of Mark Twain
(carefully expurgated to reflect racial sensitivities
in these troubled times); but when students were asked
to turn to him for an example of vernacular
free verse, all they found was space
empty as the American plains in those days
where Whitman, shaggy as any buffalo, roamed.

Perhaps he’d tired of loafing and lazing
his legacy away. After all, a man in his boots,
so used to wandering, had to feel impatient
that a new world so alive with song
had relegated him to the silence of stuffy libraries
and textbooks thick as headstones.
There was grass out there to be contemplated
and hawks aloft to admire. Still,
when I directed my students to the designated page,
where together I intended to Sing the Body
Electric with them, eleventh graders
already juiced on cafeteria junk food,
I never expected Whitman would have ditched my class
(along with two chronic truants whom I hadn’t seen
in weeks) by abandoning the hallowed space
that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had reserved especially for him.

“Where’s Whitman?” I asked aloud in disbelief.
What does one do when an American poet goes missing?
Especially one as unpredictable and iconoclastic
as Walt Whitman? To be honest,
my students thought it was “kinda cool” that some long dead
dude had “booked” for parts unknown
in a text few of them had ever bothered to open.

It became a game of “Where’s Walto?” for the remainder
of the period: Was he “kickin’ it” with the Realists,
“chillin’” with the Naturalists, or “bangin’” with the Beats
some seventy years down that long literary highway from home?

In the end, it was “Spacey” Staci, the day-dreamer
at the back of the first row, who found him
just before the dismissal bell,
hiding among the Contemporaries.

He was sitting on a stone wall,
bathed in the gold light of a late afternoon,
examining an apple Robert Frost had just tossed him
from the second step of a ladder.

Both looked so comfortable in the other’s company
we left them there to their musings,
and, so as not to disturb them,
quietly closed our books.
by Mike Orlock.
Used with the author’s permission.

Mike Orlock is a retired high school English and American History teacher who splits time between the Chicago suburbs and a vacation home in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. He has been married 37 years to his high school sweetheart and inspiration, Liz. His short stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications such asReporter-Progressnewspapers,The Peninsula Pulse, VerseWisconsin, TriQuarterly, and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets annual calendar.

Post New Comment:
As a teacher who included Whitman nearly 30 years, I find this poem right on target...whimsical (I think old Walt would appreciate those bits) as well as true to classroom life. Thanks!
Posted 06/07/2014 02:09 PM
What a refreshingly original way of looking at Whitman! Wonderful poem!
Posted 06/02/2014 08:22 AM
After reading the previous poem by Mike Orlock, I ordered two of his books. Very enjoyable poetry! Doris Bezio
Posted 05/31/2014 06:29 PM
What fun! Well done!
Posted 05/31/2014 03:08 PM
What a wonderful poem
Posted 05/31/2014 10:56 AM
This is a fabulous poem--what poetry should be; rich, interesting and powerful! I really love it!
Posted 05/31/2014 10:26 AM
love this, Mike... the "shaggy buffalo" would be pleased!
Posted 05/31/2014 08:32 AM
Ross Kightly:
'Something there is that doesn't love a wall...' I bet came up in that conversation between two of my poets of long-standing importance in my own reading and writing life! Outstanding personification of so much that is important about poetry, Mike! And I am with you on this one Jayne. 'Where's Walto' indeed!
Posted 05/31/2014 02:22 AM
Let them keep each other company? I'd rather join them.
Posted 05/30/2014 11:26 PM
I agree with Jayne. This is a terrific poem. It's late and Mike, you have kept me up reading, and all I can say is thank you. What a way to end an already good day.
Posted 05/30/2014 11:12 PM

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