It would be easier to nominate 100 poems than it is to nominate 1. Still, I have chosen section 32 of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" because it has stayed with me for half a century. I first heard the beginning of this passage read by Pete Seeger in a Carnegie Hall concert in the late 1950s. Although I had no deep connections to animals at that time, the lines brought me to tears. Whitman's idea that animals are "placid and self-contained" is hardly true, even by his own admission calling the stallion "full of sparkling wickedness." But his ideal of turning to animals as life forces of nature without the spiritual hypocrisy and "whining" of mankind is a choice I admire.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me, and I accept them;
They bring me tokens of myself—they evince them plainly in their possession.
I wonder where they get those tokens:
Did I pass that way huge times ago, and negligently drop them?
Myself moving forward then and now and forever,
Gathering and showing more always and with velocity,
Infinite and omnigenous, and the like of these among them;
Not too exclusive toward the reachers of my remembrancers;
Picking out here one that I love, and now go with him on brotherly terms.
A gigantic beauty of a stallion, fresh and responsive to my caresses,
Head high in the forehead, wide between the ears,
Limbs glossy and supple, tail dusting the ground,
Eyes full of sparkling wickedness—ears finely cut, flexibly moving.
His nostrils dilate, as my heels embrace him;
His well-built limbs tremble with pleasure, as we race around and return.
I but use you a moment, then I resign you, stallion;
Why do I need your paces, when I myself out-gallop them?
Even, as I stand or sit, passing faster than you.