National Poetry Month and Walt Whitman

By Jerilyn WatsonApril is National Poetry Month. People are celebrating poetry in the United States, around the world and even in space. I'm Shirley Griffith.And I'm Sarah Long. We tell about National Poetry Month and the great American poet Walt Whitman on our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

America's National Poetry Month has become a worldwide event. Millions of people are taking part in poetry activities this month. People are reading poems in more than one-hundred cities around the world. They are presenting poems in Antarctica and on Mount Everest. Astronauts are reading poems on the International Space Station.

The Academy of American Poets organized this worldwide National Poetry Month celebration. The academy was established in Nineteen-Thirty-Four to support poets and their work. It started the first National Poetry Month in Nineteen-Ninety-Six. The goal was to help more Americans add poetry to their lives.In the Nineteenth Century, one of America's greatest writers, Walt Whitman, helped people learn to value poetry. Whitman created a new kind of poetry. People across the nation are honoring Whitman with readings of his work during National Poetry Month.

Walt Whitman was born in Eighteen-Nineteen in New York City. During his long life, he watched America grow from a new nation to the strongest industrial power in the world. Whitman was influenced by events around him. But his poetry speaks of the inner self. He celebrated great people like President Abraham Lincoln. He also celebrated common people.As a young man, Whitman worked as a school teacher, a printer and a newspaper reporter. He was thirty-six years old when he published his first book of poetry in Eighteen-Fifty-Five. He called it "Leaves of Grass." It had only twelve poems. The poems are written in free verse. The lines do not follow any set form. Some lines are short. Some are long. The words at the end of each line do not have a similar sound. They do not rhyme.

Here are some lines from the famous poem "Song of Myself" from "Leaves of Grass." Whitman writes about grass as a sign of everlasting life.


A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves,

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men

It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps.One of America's greatest thinkers and writers immediately recognized the importance of "Leaves of Grass." Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Whitman's work. But most other poets and writers said nothing or denounced it.

Most readers also rejected Whitman's poems. The new form of his poetry surprised many people. His praise of the human body and sexual love shocked many people. Whitman was homosexual. He loved other men. Some people disliked Whitman's opinions of society. He rejected the search for money and power.

Even his own brother told Whitman that he should stop writing poetry. But Whitman had many things to say. And he continued to say them. Readers began to understand that America had a great new poetic voice.

((BRIDGE MUSIC))The American Civil War began in Eighteen-Sixty-One. The southern states had broken away from the United States. They wanted to protect their rights against the central government. They especially wanted to continue owning black slaves.

The northern states fought the South to save the Union and free the slaves. Walt Whitman hated slavery because he believed all people are equal. He supported the northern cause.

During the war Whitman worked for the government in Washington, D. C. He also worked without pay at army hospitals. He helped care for wounded and dying soldiers. He sat beside these men for hours. He wrote letters for them. He brought them food and money.

Whitman sometimes saw President Abraham Lincoln riding his horse in Washington. President Lincoln was murdered soon after the Civil War ended. Whitman honored him with a poem called "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed." The poem describes Lincoln as a great spirit and a fallen star. This is how the poem begins:


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,

And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,

I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,


Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

O powerful western fallen star!After the Civil War, Whitman worked for government agencies. He watched the United States try to heal itself and increase democracy.

To Walt Whitman, democracy was more than a political system or idea. It was the natural form of government for free people. Whitman believed democracy is meant to honor the rights of every person and the equality of all people. Whitman denounced people who believed they were better than others in the eyes of God. He expresses these ideas in his poem "Song of Myself."


I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Experts today praise "Leaves of Grass" as a major literary work. In his time, Whitman thought of it as a work in progress. He re-published the book every few years for the rest of his life. Each time he added new poems. And he changed many of the old lines. The last version of the book contained more than four-hundred poems. By then, Whitman's fame had spread to many nations.

In Eighteen-Seventy-Three, Walt Whitman suffered a stroke. He spent the last years of his life in Camden, New Jersey. He wrote more poems. He also wrote about political and democratic policies.

Whitman was poor and weak during the last years of his life. He died in Eighteen-Ninety-Two. But if we can believe his poetry, death held no terrors for him. Listen to these lines from "Song of Myself":


And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me

And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths.

(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before)

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?

It is not chaos or death -- it is form, union, plan -- it is eternal life -- it is Happiness

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.Some critics say Walt Whitman was a spokesman for democracy. Others say he was not a spokesman for anything. Instead, they simply call him a great poet. We leave you now with more words from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman.


I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul, I am the poet of the woman the same as the man


I celebrate myself.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. The poetry was read by Steve Ember. I'm Shirley Griffith.And I'm Sarah Long. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.