(Illustration by Pauline Jakobsberg/Courtesy of The Splendid Wake)

In the preface to “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman proclaimed that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”

And now a local group is determined to honor the poets who lived and live in the capital of these United States. Since last summer, scholars, editors and poets have been devising an innovative way to preserve the work of D.C.-area writers and their literary culture.

The group, called “A Splendid Wake,” will make its first public presentation tonight at George Washington University. The event will include several panel discussions about the city’s poetic history and a new online archive of Washington poetry from 1900 to the present day.

Myra Sklarew, one of the coordinators of a Splendid Wake, reminds me that “the nation’s capital has been a central place for outstanding poets from Walt Whitman to the generation of Sterling Brown, May Miller and writers like Claude Brown, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, who met in workshops in D.C.”

Sklarew, who taught writing for many years at American University, says, “It seemed important not only to remember and honor those whom we’d known in a public event, but to establish an archive about poetry movements and poets that anyone can contribute to and will in the future.”

The poet Elisavietta Ritchie came up with the idea of “A Splendid Wake” — a constantly evolving Web site about the poetry movement in the nation’s capital. Based on the Wikipedia model of user cultivation, the new site will be maintained by the George Washington University Gelman Library. The wiki will be a place to record information about past and present poets, workshops, bookstores, literary magazines and publishers.

The Splendid Wake wiki currently lists more than 800 poets — from Ally Acker to Helen Webster — but only a few dozen have entries, so there’s lots for users to contribute.

The 16 speakers at tonight’s inaugural event will include Luis Alberto Ambroggio, the author of 14 collections of poetry and essays; Sarah Browning, director of “Split This Rock”; Grace Cavalieri, producer of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem”; Teri Cross Davis, poetry coordinator at the Folger Library; Dolores Kendrick, the poet laureate of D.C.; Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University; Kim Roberts, founder and editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly; and D.C. Council member Jim Graham.

This free presentation is open to the public from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the George Washington University Gelman Library’s Special Collection Conference Room on the seventh floor.

For more information contact Jennifer King at jenking@gwu.edu