RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of American poet Walt Whitman. He is recognized as the father of free verse, liberating poetry from rhyme and meter. Whitman celebrated the American experience in all its diversity. And around the world, fans will mark the occasion with readings and exhibitions. From New York, Tom Vitale has this appreciation.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Morgan Library and Museum curator Ted Widmer is preparing for an exhibition called "Walt Whitman: Bard Of Democracy." He holds up a large volume with almost three-dimensional plant-like shapes on the cover.
TED WIDMER: And then in the middle, in gilt letters, "Leaves Of Grass," with a lot of viny tendrils hanging off the letters of "Leaves Of Grass." And this is probably the most important book of American poetry in our history.
VITALE: And this is the first edition, 1 of only 795 copies Whitman published himself. It begins like this.
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ROBERT PINSKY: (Reading) I celebrate myself and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my soul. I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.
VITALE: Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky read from the book in 2005.
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PINSKY: "Leaves Of Grass," I believe, like American jazz, like certain American feature films, represents the best of our experiment, our effort to become a people.
VITALE: But when Whitman first published "Leaves Of Grass," he could hardly give the books away, says curator Ted Widmer.
WIDMER: He basically had a stack of these things, and he was mailing them to important editors. Most people were either indifferent or angry.
VITALE: Because of Whitman's frank and sensual language.
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PINSKY: (Reading) I believe in the flesh and the appetites. Seeing, hearing and feeling are miracles. And each part and tag of me is a miracle. Divine am I, inside and out. And I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from. The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer. This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
VITALE: The 36-year-old Whitman sent a copy to the esteemed poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote back praising it as the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. Without asking permission, Whitman published Emerson's letter in newspapers along with glowing anonymous reviews of his book that he wrote himself, says Ted Widmer.
WIDMER: He's just a guy in Brooklyn with very little money. He's a part-time carpenter. And he's got to break in somehow. And so he learned a few tricks of showmanship.
VITALE: Unlike his college-educated peers Emerson and Longfellow, Whitman quit school when he was 11 to help support his family. Standing inside the house in West Hills, Long Island, where Whitman was born, biographer David Reynolds says Walt Whitman never stopped feeding his mind.
DAVID REYNOLDS: He read. He went to plays. He didn't belong to a church, but he loved to go hear preachers and orators. He had an eternally curious mind, so that by the time of 1855, "Leaves Of Grass" has more different vocabulary words than any other written poetry in English except for Shakespeare.
VITALE: Whitman used his vocabulary to celebrate individualism and the life he lived, says Leah Naomi Green, winner of this year's Walt Whitman prize from the Academy of American Poets.
LEAH NAOMI GREEN: He's just very real to me. I think that there's no poet whose work has been more real to my writing and teaching than Whitman has.
VITALE: The 35-year-old mother of two won the prize for her first book of poetry called "The More Extravagant Feast."
GREEN: I really love that it is, to Whitman, about lived experience and that reading poetry and writing poetry is really just an excuse. It's really just a means of being more deeply in the world.
VITALE: After the Civil War broke out, Whitman went to Washington, D.C., and volunteered as a nurse to treat the wounded, says historian Ted Widmer.
WIDMER: And it's one of the most beautiful things about Whitman - that he wasn't content to just write these expressive forms of poetry. He wanted to feel the feelings of other people, too, and to diminish the pain that his country was in.
VITALE: Walt Whitman tried to express the voices of all Americans in his poems. He wrote sympathetically about the South as well as the North. He was gay. He hated slavery, yet the great love of his life was an ex-Confederate soldier. David Reynolds, author of Walt Whitman's "America: A Cultural Biography" says reading Whitman's poetry has a healing effect.
REYNOLDS: Unfortunately, today, we tend to be so divided in our point of views. But we have to remember that Walt Whitman himself lived in an even more divided time. And Whitman tried, through his poetry, to kind of overcome that divide. And I think, now more than ever, his vision is needed by society, I really do.
VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
MARTIN: Whitman believed in the United States of America. His poetry envisioned a country of one people - Americans - and embraced immigrants and minorities. But some of his other writings saw the path to unity as something that would only be possible through the leadership of white Americans.
These contradictory points of view have sparked debate for decades over what exactly Whitman believed when it came to inclusiveness. Yet, a number of African Americans poets have cited Whitman as an influence. Langston Hughes called him the Lincoln of our letters. Poet E. Ethelbert Miller says Whitman's contradictions are human, political and come from the time in which he lived.
E ETHELBERT MILLER: When we look at Whitman, at least in terms of black people, we have to look in terms of not just him living at a time when the country's being divided, but what's coming after. So how do I interpret Whitman and Reconstruction? So if we look at those contradictions, we realize, OK, how does the country begin to heal?
And I think it's back to - if you see up close the tragedy of war, if you are dressing the wounds, your hand touches that blood, you understand what that means, OK. You don't want that to continue. And that's where you can say Whitman, you know - playing off Walt Whitman the witness - what do you want for the future? What do you want coming after you? And when you have work that speaks to the future, it becomes a blueprint not just for other writers but for a nation itself.
MARTIN: Miller has published more than a dozen books of poetry including his latest, "If God Invented Baseball." He offers his poem in the spirit of Walt Whitman on his bicentennial for our divided times. It's called "If My Blackness Turns To Fruit."
MILLER: (Reading) Dear America, my love, if my blackness turns to fruit, do not pull it from the vine. Let it grow from earth to sky untouched by hateful hands. So sweet my juice, my jazz, my blues, so sad but true. Dear America, my love, look behind your prison walls. Count the black seeds behind bars, the cells where nothing blooms. Can hope flower from despair? Yes, America, my love. Resistance comes, and then the rain.
MARTIN: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller sharing a vision of America to mark Walt Whitman's bicentennial.
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