Guided Reading: Walt Whitman

Let’s look at Whitman from the beginning, as a mediocre composer of rhymed-and-metered newspaper verse, to the smashing breakthrough that allowed him to publish Leaves of Grass in 1855. We’ll spend a good amount of time on that volume, America’s poetic Declaration of Independence. We’ll also want to follow the subsequent editions of the same-named book that Whitman published until the end (he lived from 1819 to 1892)—the sexual poems, the Civil War threnodies, the great elegy for Lincoln, the poems of the Open Road. And we’ll learn about his life along the way, maybe dipping into Specimen Days, his book of prose recollections. As poets we’ll see what we can learn from him in the way of literary techniques (and there’s a lot to learn) and write “Whitmanic” poems of our own. Then, too, we’ll want to have an eye on the growth of Whitman’s reputation, from Emerson’s celebratory letter to him, his meeting with Thoreau, and how the British, French (Valery Larbaud), and Spanish-language poets (Lorca and Neruda) enhanced his reputation overseas and learned from him as well. Who were Whitman’s contemporaries and how did they receive his work? Which American poets later profited from Whitman’s innovations and vision? (Carl Sandburg, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Simpson, Galway Kinnell and others.) We’ll try for Walt the “rough,” listening for his “barbaric yawp” back then and now, and Walt the Mystic, the cosmos his appetite, hoping for as unretouched a portrait of him as the Mathew Brady print in the Library of Congress.

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Born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Bill Zavatsky worked as a pianist from the age of fifteen to twenty-five and studied jazz improvisation with Hall Overton at the New School. He is the author of Where X Marks the Spot, For Steve Royal and Other Poems and Theories of Rain and Other Poems. With Zack Rogow, he co-translated Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize; with Ron Padgett he co-translated The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud. His work has appeared in The Face of Poetry, Up Late, Rabbit Ears and other anthologies, and his poems serve as liner notes for CDs by the pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland. He holds BA and MFA degrees from Columbia University. For many years he served as the director of SUN, a literary press, as well as SUN magazine, and taught in the high school at the Trinity School in Manhattan. He has also taught workshops for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the Poetry Project, Long Island University, C.W. Post College, the University of Texas at Austin, Eugene Lang College and Poets House. He currently teaches a walk-in poetry workshop at the Morningside Heights Library on the Upper West Side. He lives in New York City.

Author photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell