But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
A photo of Walt Whitman taken about 1870. The poet lived in Washington from 1863 to 1873.
(Ed Folsom Collection)
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
-- Walt Whitman, untitled version of "Song of Myself"
in "Leaves of Grass," 1855
In 1855, an itinerant printer and journalist self-published those lines in his first volume of verse -- and the raw, rich land of which he wrote found its national poet. Breaking with tidy English verse, Walt Whitman let his long lines roll across the pages of "Leaves of Grass," lines that embraced carpenters, shoemakers, sewing girls, flax, black bears, buckwheat, ants, even "the alligator in his tough pimples" -- all the vast sprawl that was his native country. This year, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of that book with readings aplenty, especially in Washington, Whitman's home from 1863 to 1873.
Even today's frantic pace and high-tech gear don't dull the "jolt of excitement" many people feel when reading works by the 19th-century poet, says David McAleavey, director of the creative writing program at George Washington University. McAleavey hopes to tap this energy with a marathon reading of "Leaves of Grass" at the university April 16, during National Poetry Month. "We've invited actors, poets, politicians and the public," he says, with plans for a "multiplicity of voices" to reflect the "democratic spirit of Whitman's work, that sense of inclusiveness and expansiveness."
The reading is but one event in the citywide festival that begins Saturday (marking the poet's death in 1892) and runs through May 31 (his birth date in 1819). The Library of Congress, the world's major repository of his work, bookends the festival with noon poetry readings Friday and May 31.
"Few people realize that Whitman lived and worked here for 10 years," says Martin Murray, founder in 1987 and president of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, which spearheaded the festival. Though publishing "Leaves of Grass" in New York, his home state, the poet continued to revise and expand the volume throughout his life, releasing two new editions while in the nation's capital. "Washington was the time of his maturity," says Murray, an economist by profession and Whitman historian by passion, with scholarly papers on the local people and places that formed the poet's world. (Murray's work can be read at the academic site www.whitmanarchive.org.) "Whitman's experience here, especially nursing Civil War soldiers, helped inform his revisions," Murray says, and spurred essays, newspaper pieces and new poems on the war and President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
I hear the tramp of armies, I hear the challenging sentry . . .
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood
-- Whitman, "Drum-Taps," 1865
Washington was in turmoil when Whitman arrived in December 1862, searching for his younger brother George, a wounded Union soldier, in one of the city's many makeshift hospitals. Like poets past and present, Whitman had kept day jobs -- teacher, journalist, printer, government clerk -- throughout his life. But in finding George (slightly injured on the front lines in Virginia), Whitman also found an important calling: nursing. Whitman stayed through the war's end to tend, on a volunteer basis, "these thousands . . . of American young men, badly wounded, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia," as he described in a letter to New York friends.
"The city really is suffused with Whitman's presence," says Kim Roberts, local editor of Beltway, an online journal with historic essays on prominent area poets, including her own "Whitman in Washington," and map of attendant sites (www.washingtonart.com, click on "Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly"). None of the poet's many boarding-house residences still stands, though his first is now the site of offices for the American Medical Association (1101 Vermont Ave. NW). Roberts combed Whitman's correspondence, biographies and city directories to pinpoint the houses' locations. "It was a lot of work," Roberts admits, "but I like driving or walking past some of those areas and thinking, 'Walt lived here.' "