Walt Whitman

This is a tribute to one of the greatest American poets, Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman was born on May 31th, 1819 in New Jersey.

He was an American poet, journalist and essayist.                                                                                A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse, though he did not invent it.

Whitman’s work breaks the boundaries of poetic form and is generally prose-like.                  He also used unusual images and symbols in his poetry, including rotting leaves, tufts of straw, and debris.

Whitman wrote in the preface to the 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass”, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” He believed there was a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society.

This connection was emphasized especially in “Song of Myself” by using an all-powerful first-person narration.

As an American epic, it deviated from the historic use of an elevated hero and instead assumed the identity of the common people.

Leaves of Grass also responded to the impact that recent urbanization in the United States had on the masses.

Walt Whitman has been claimed as America’s first “poet of democracy”, a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character.                                                          A British friend of Walt Whitman, Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, wrote:

“You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without “Leaves of Grass”… He has expressed that civilization, ‘up to date,’ as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him.”

Modernist poet Ezra Pound called Whitman “America’s poet… He is America.”

Andrew Carnegie called him “the great poet of America so far”.

The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of “Leaves of Grass”:

If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself,  you have never composed a line of verse.                                                                              You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States.                                                                                                                                     They might include Melville’s “Moby-Dick”, Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and “The Conduct of Life”.                                                             None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of “Leaves of Grass”.

Whitman’s poetry has been set to music by a large number of composers;  indeed it has been suggested his poetry has been set to music more than any other American poet except for Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.                                                                   Those who have set his poems to music have included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten,  Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Delius, Kurt Weill, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Paul Hindemith,   Ned Rorem,  John Adams, Ronald Corp, George Crumb and Roger Sessions.

Trivia: Did you know that Whitman also influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and was the model for the character of Dracula?                                                                                 Stoker said in his notes that Dracula represented the quintessential male which, to Stoker, was Whitman, with whom he corresponded until Whitman’s death.

Celebrating Walt Whitman.


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