101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman
By Maria Popova
“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.
Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.
Couple with Fagin’s cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.
Published May 31, 2019