In the war diaries he later published, Whitman wrote:
These Hospitals, so different from all others - these American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, well they open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, showing our humanity, tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, to him, what are your dramas and poems?
Whitman was not forsaking his art. Rather he was recognizing that there are times when art is not enough, a time when we have to get our hands dirty, when artists need to take a stand with our bodies. This is the tension that tugs at many artists who feel the need to go inward and artfully explore while all the time there are pressing needs around; we see family, friends, and strangers suffering. These propel us out of our sanctuaries into the flesh and blood of the world we try so hard to understand. For me this often feels like a messy affair of inadequacy as I fumble to give comfort and care. While the services I offer to the grieving, the sufferer, the person waylaid by a storm or injustice does not reflect the thoughtful, polished art I so much aspire to create, perhaps this physical manifestation of my concern, the “profound conviction of necessity,” the word made flesh, is art in itself. As Whitman reveals, we can enter a process of transfiguration in which our bodies become the poetry.