Date to note: 31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

6th Centenary of the death of L Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

20th Rathbones Folio prise awarded.

21st Man Booker International prize awarded.

23rd Hay festival opens until 2nd June.

31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman.

It is two hundred years since the birth of poet Walt Whitman and this is still relevant because…? I do not seek to be provocative: as usual with the Guardian Review literary calendar the dates are left to speak for themselves which they may well do to staffers of the Guardian Review or Guardian Books. It could be they present such dates as a simple list of facts, useful for the crossword perhaps but given that this list appears alongside ‘books to look forward to’ for the same month I think the lists are meant to be more than that (as an aside, I did write to ask – twice – but no one from the Guardian has responded).  So, as I have in earlier blog posts, I ponder on this date.

Whitman was an American writer, journalist and essayist but he is known primarily for his poetry. In particular, he is known for the audacity of his poetry, which, depending on the critic was considered either fearlessly bold or brashly unmannerly with some critics calling his work ‘obscene’. It would appear that Whitman took little note of his critics and was a self publicist who might today have been very comfortable in the playground of social media, sending his work to all and sundry, drawing attention to favourable reviews and indeed, even creating his own.

Is audacity alone reason enough to note the birth date of Whitman?

Like many people I readily recall ‘O Captain! My Captain’ written following the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 since is was used so marvellously by Robin Williams in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ (the boys on the desks scene is still one of the best in cinema) and this poem as a stand alone is arguably good reason to remember him but he contributed so much more.  Whitman changed poetry.  He distained the poetic canons of historical tradition at that time primarily influenced through European history.  He wrote distinctly as an American for an American audience though his work was often contentious even to a home audience discussing as he did, nature, love, friendship, politics, sex and himself.  More important, arguably, than the content of his work is the free verse style he created which has had a huge influence upon modern poetry.  This was acknowledged by, amongst others, so called ‘beat poet’, Allen Ginsberg a devotee of Whitman who speaks to him directly in his own poem A Supermarket in California’.

My own favourite Whitman poem is I Hear America Singing’ which speaks of the different voices of America’s working people without romanticising their labour or refusing them the respect of individual agency.  It is a poem of celebration but also acknowledges difference and a right to belong – or not belong – and in that respect, it might be viewed as a distinctly political poem and one as relevant today as it was when it was written.  

Whitman broke the rules and rejected the then familiar traditions of poetry

His work has rhythm without rhymes, unusual informal and yet highly formal structure of long and short lines, lines grouped in new ways and arrangements which appear both wildly disorganised and yet acutely organised. Not all of his work is an easy read. I am unqualified to make any kind of assessment other than ‘I know what I like’ and some of Whitman’s work, it seems to me, has real relevance to current social and political discussion of diversity, place, belonging and democracy. 

The bicentenary of Walt Whitman’s birth is worth noting and deserves its place on the Guardian Review’s list.