The world celebrates Whitman Poet: America's most famous poet is popular everywhere from China to the White House.

March 12, 1998|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

These are boom times for Walt Whitman, America's most famous poet.

A century after his death, Whitman, the poet of democracy, the poet of the body and soul, commands a loyal and expansive following from his birthplace on New York's Long Island to the literary circles of China.

His rough, rigorous, unrhymed verse, informal and impassioned, appeals to both genders, all ages and numerous nationalities.

"Whitman is the poet of liberty, of individual freedom," said Carol Muske-Dukes, a poet and creative writing professor at the University of Southern California. "As the world heads toward a new millennium, Whitman speaks more loudly and directly to people than ever."

Whitman may even have a fan in the White House. If the daily leakage is to be believed, his masterpiece "Leaves of Grass" has a cameo in the investigation involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Whitman's poetic themes -- themes that Americans in their ethnocentric way thought were uniquely American -- turn out to be so energetically universal they are increasingly being assimilated into different cultures.

In China, a new Mandarin translation of his entire 400-poem canon has become a best seller. The Communist government tried to suppress its publication in recent years but abandoned that effort in the face of widespread opposition.

In August, the Polish National Radio broadcast a marathon Whitman reading. A year earlier, 23 Hungarian translators finished translating 73 Whitman poems. A professor at the University of Wales completed a translation of Whitman into Welsh.

The domestic and international spread of Whitmania -- the term of endearment used by his fans to describe their devotion -- has been spurred by new editions, new critical studies, new translations, ever larger symposia and an increasing number of reading circles.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, residents of East and West

Germany were delighted to find that during decades of separation Germans on both sides of the barbed barrier had shared a love of Whitman -- although with different ideological slants.

In the East, he had been praised as a good socialist, a stalwart of the workers, and devoutly asexual; in the West, he was the voice of democracy, unfettered individualism, and gay liberation. One of the tasks in reunifying Germany has been to reconcile those clashing views of Whitman.

Increasing numbers of literary-minded tourists are flocking to the Whitman boyhood home at Huntington Station, N.Y., and the Whitman old-age home and tomb, both in New Jersey. (Speaking of New Jersey, there's a Walt Whitman Rest Stop along the New Jersey Turnpike.)

Immune to criticism

Unlike many a poet, Whitman, who died at age 72 in 1892, has never fallen from popular favor, even when his work was $H attacked for its sexual frankness and publishers shunned him. ,, He self-published his work and was a relentless self-promoter (including writing glowing reviews anonymously for New York papers).

In the early part of this century, his poetry also was disparaged by Ezra Pound, dismissed by the formalist school of poetry and snubbed by powerful academicians offended by its hyper-emotionalism and apparent lack of structure.

Whitman and his shaggy "barbaric yawp" of a style survived those button-down decades and came roaring back in the 1950s when the cultural winds began howling from a different direction. To the Beat Generation, Whitman was a god-come-to-Earth, a genuine poet of the people.

So devoted are modern-day Whitman lovers that the University of Iowa Press -- a major publisher of Whitman scholarship -- is compiling the ultimate day-by-day account of the poet's life. Also, a 2,500-page Whitman encyclopedia is to be published this year.

And a major Whitman conference is set for fall at the Rutgers University campus in Camden, N.J., the poet's adopted hometown.

Whitman has even been injected into the current White House controversy by reports that the president gave Lewinsky a copy of "Leaves of Grass."

Although its contents have changed with varying editions, the 1855 collection generally includes 12 of Whitman's earliest poems, including "Song of Myself" -- much-celebrated and highly lyrical but controversial because of its sexual content.

University of Iowa Professor Ed Folsom, who edits the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, said a Washington reporter called him to ask what Whitman lines deal with oral sex. Folsom was ready with several citations.

If the reporter had only consulted the index to Edwin Haviland Miller's "Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself': A Mosaic of Interpretations," he could also have found citations for bisexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, narcissism, Oedipal sexuality, sodomy and voyeurism.

Delighted as they are that poetry is making news, there are those in the literary world who worry that the media are giving a skewed impression of Whitman, portraying him as a quasi-pornographer.

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