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Poetry and Patriotism

A month or so ago, I was invited to speak at a poetry slam conducted by Urban Poets, a group of teenage poets who perform their own works with the most passionate intensity. Some poems are profoundly personal; some, expressions of outrage at injustices and discrimination; others, protests against "school" and its unfairness or irrelevance to their lives; still others, outcries against the war in Iraq and the lies that sustain it.

I had trouble deciding what to say to that young generation whose world differed so much from my own. So I turned to Walt Whitman and a poem he wrote, "To the Young Poets," telling them it was up to them to change the world. Like many artists, Whitman spoke of imagination and unrealized possibility. In his poetry and in his Democratic Vistas, he was asking for the kind of unease that would ward off complacency and compliance, that would awaken people enough to move them to act, to see democracy as an open possibility, always in the future, not as an achievement in the past.

This article was written by Maxine Greene, professor emerita of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. It appeared in the April 1st. 2006 publication of Phi Delta Kappan.

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