Whitman at 200 Ventures on an Old Theme
This is the text of Don Share’s keynote lecture on the last day (24 May) of the ‘Whitman 200’ conference held at the University of Bolton.
‘So you want an essay about American National Literature, do you? Well, if you will let me put down some melanged cogitations regarding the matter, haphazard, and from my own points of view I will try.’ Thus Walt Whitman, introducing a talk on both American literature and his own work, which he saw as the blueprint for American poetry to come. Now that it has been 200 years since his birth, here are a few gathered thoughts about us, his American heirs and readers.
When my predecessor, Poetry
’s founding editor Harriet Monroe, created not only a monthly magazine for contemporary poetry but the idea
of a monthly magazine for contemporary poetry over a century ago, she was following in the bootheels of Walt Whitman, who arguably created the idea of contemporary poetry itself. In Whitman’s time, as well as hers, contemporary, even modern, poetry was not on any school curriculum either in the United States or UK. There was not yet, as Monroe put it, a place
for contemporary poetry as there surely was for the opera, symphony, modern and other art, and cinema. She created that place in 1912, and when her first issue was published in October of that year, and in others for years to come, Poetry
carried a motto, sometimes on the title page, more often on the magazine’s back cover, which consisted of a curious and contrarian sentence written by Walt Whitman: ‘To have