Yes, it is – Walt Whitman was born on this day in 1819. Whitman is widely considered to be one of the most influential American poets of all time. Other poets, from Emerson to Ginsberg, reference his work and claim his influence. Whitman”s most famous works were Leaves of Grass (in several editions over his lifetime) and Drum Taps (eventually incorporated into Leaves of Grass). Whitman”s poetry shattered existing conventions of poetry, taking on the Victorian sensibilities with poems about prostitutes and slaves, prisoners, sexuality and his love for men. His “songs” were both celebrations of human spirit and damnation of tyranny. Whitman once said that it was the duty of the poet to cheer slaves and horrify despots – and he aimed his poetry to do exactly that.
Whitman absorbs and reflects the time around him. He is not an Ivory Tower poet writing in the halls of academe for an audience of academics. Rather, his poetry speaks to everyone. He took his inspiration from the streets around him, from the popular culture of the day. His poetry is about opera, about music, about the people around him and about his growing awareness of man as part of the world. His major work, Leaves of Grass, was published in as many as five different editions, each with more poems than the last, each showing a growth toward the poet he became.
Celebrate Whitman”s birthday by listening to Whitman”s poetry read by the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Joao de Souza and Paul Giametti in a show that aired on NYPR (New York Public Radio) on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass.