Walt Whitman, Long Island’s pre-eminent voice of verse, would have turned 200 this year. The icing on the bicentennial birthday cake will be a series of celebrations ranging from talks to theatrical and musical performances at his Huntington Station birthplace this weekend.
Whitman represents America’s first poetic voice, says Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the historic home where Whitman lived until he was 4.
“He used free verse poetry, which imbued the American view of expansion and growth,” notes Shor. “Walt developed a social conscience, a social voice, a sense of social justice. He exemplified that in his life.”
Among the guests coming to the birthplace is Jerome Loving, 77, author of “Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself,” who calls Whitman “the seminal American poet.”
“Most American poets look back at him. Many have written poems to him or about him,” says Loving, 77, of Houston. “He’s wholly American in a linguistic way. He’s our first vernacular poet: He uses everyday words, language.”
Whitman’s words so moved Ralph Waldo Emerson that he said, “ ‘Cut these words and they would bleed,’ ” notes Loving.
A WHITMAN SAMPLER
Loving, whose “Whitman’s 70th Birthday Party and the Ghost of Emerson” talk will focus on that 1889 celebration where guests included the sons of Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, notes, “New England never wholly accepted Whitman in the 19th century.”
Also speaking will be David Reynolds, author of “Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography," who will present “Whitman, Lincoln and America’s Worst Political Crisis.”
Whitman lived during the Civil War, a time that was more divided than ours, says Reynolds, 70, of Old Westbury. The poet’s “Leaves of Grass," published in 1855, featured poems that were overtly antislavery. “He really hoped that his poetry would serve a social function to heal the division in the country,” says Reynolds.
Whitman only gained renown in the last years of his life, and his writings influenced many major 20th century writers, from D.H. Lawrence to Pablo Neruda, says Reynolds, adding that in the 1960s, hippies lauded him because they “saw him as a figure of rebellion against the establishment and for sexual liberation.”
Though many people knew he was gay, Whitman claimed to have fathered several children and denied his homosexuality.
“Were he alive today, I think he would definitely have come out of the closet, but I don’t think he would be politicized about it,” opines Reynolds.
Through the beauty and uplift of his imagery, Whitman is very relevant today, says Reynolds.
“There’s something very healing about his poetry,” Reynolds says, adding that even though he opposed slavery, Whitman tried to reach out to the South. “He can help break down barriers between people.”
Whitman, Reynolds says, opened poetry to new themes of sexuality and life experiences, influencing Carl Sandburg, Federico Garcia Lorca, E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg and others.
“He was very, very liberating, both stylistically and thematically,” says Reynolds. “There are very, very few poets in the modern era who have escaped his influence.”
WHAT Walt Whitman’s Bicentennial Birthday Celebration, includes talks, performances and house tours
WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m.-9 p.m. May 31 and June 1 and 1-4 p.m. June 2, Walt Whitman Birthplace, 246 Old Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington Station
INFO Free ($5 for house tours); 631-760-6216, waltwhitman.org
Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday celebration is also in full bloom at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, where the exhibition “Walt Whitman’s Arcadia: Long Island Through the Eyes of a Poet & Painters” explores how Whitman’s Long Island-inspired poetry influenced the art world. Whitman’s words, evocative of the island’s farmers, fishermen, rugged seashore and bucolic landscapes, are paired with depictions of Long Island by William Sidney Mount, John F. Kensett, Lemuel Wiles and other contemporary painters of "The Good Grey Poet."
WHAT “Walt Whitman’s Arcadia: Long Island Through the Eyes of a Poet & Painters”
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 12-5 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 2, Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook
INFO $10, $7 ages 62 and older, $5 ages 6-17, free 5 and younger; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org