Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, WHEN HELEN KELLER SPOKE (WALT WHITMAN DINNER, 1918), by GEORGE JAY SMITH

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First Line: After others had said their say
Last Line: Which she could not hear.
Subject(s): Keller, Helen (1880-1968); Language; Life; Poetry & Poets; Whitman, Walt (1819-1891); Words; Vocabulary

After others had said their say,
Some striving for wit,
Some exploiting their own penetration, psychology, cleverness,
Others heavily impressive,
She arose, Helen Keller,
Who never hears her own voice,
Nor any voice,
Who never sees the sun, the fields, the streams,
Nor any human face,
Whose hands alone, sensitive as antennae,
Convey to her imprisoned brain all it can know
Of life, of language, and of human thought;
She arose, and out of her changeless darkness and inner silence

With sightless eyes almost fixed, and void of expression,
She stood and made her lips, laboriously taught, utter words,
Words that came forth colorless, monotonously chanted,
Difficult to understand, for she could not sing the customary tunes of language,
Yet words that were every one a triumph, an achievement, a wonder,
For they uttered the soul of one who had out-generaled fate
And become a great woman.
Unlike the other speakers, she did not strive for rhetoric,
She did not stoop to wit or cleverness,
She did not elaborate commonplaces;
It would have been marvelous to hear her say that grass is green,
Or that music is sweet,
Or that she had learned to read Mother Goose;
But, under her terrible handicap, she had traveled far --
Denied the fundamental opportunity that is everyone's,
The use of hearing, sight, familiar speech,
She had become a person of culture, of trained mind,
The mistress of many languages, of the circle of the sciences, of philosophy
Nor was she merely all this --
She alluded to herself as a Liberal,
She was one helping to bear the burden of the world.

She was talking of Walt Whitman,
Whom millions know but as a name,
And thousands mis-know through narrowness and ignorance,
And she said of him
That many are blind to his vision,
Deaf to his message, --
But she, though sightless, was not blind to it,
And, though dwelling in soundlessness, she was not deaf --
"He has opened many windows in my dark house,
"He makes me aware of the stars, the sunshine, the sea,
"And the wonderful night."
And, as she spoke,
Some who had ears became aware
That they heard not the music she could hear,
And, having eyes, they saw not the glories that were present to her.
Awed, silent, moved with humility and self-reproach,
They listened to Helen Keller's chanting strange voice,
That voice from beyond some dark mysterious barrier,
Watched upon her lips and unseeing eyes an expression of her ecstatic raptness,
And, when she sat down, burst into loud plaudits,
Which she could not hear.

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