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Walt Whitman and Modern Voices in Poetry: A Resource Guide

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The following resource guide was created by Jay Baker, a 2021 Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internships fellow with the Manuscript Division. This selected guide includes Library of Congress and related online resources on three U.S. Poets Laureate and other modern poets whose work is inspired in part by Walt Whitman’s poetry.

In “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” the final piece in the last lifetime edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-92), Walt Whitman reflects on the nature of poetry. In the last words of the reflective essay, he says that truly great poetry is always “the result of a [broad] national spirit, and not the privilege of a polish’d and select few.” He further concludes that “the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.”  Whitman saw himself and his work existing within a continuum that stretched from his own time forward to poets to come, to democratic writers of future generations who would, like him, be inspired in innovative grassroots ways, delve into questions of identity, and bring new subject matter and perspectives to the forefront through their work.

Among the diverse and modern voices Whitman envisioned would follow him are three recent U.S. Poet Laureate Consultants to the Library of Congress: Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, and Juan Felipe Herrera. They served in association with the Library from 2015 to 2022 and were all inspired in their own ways by Whitman.

Joy Harjo

Living Nations, Living Words

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate 2019-2022. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Joy Harjo, an enrolled member of the Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) Nation, is the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, serving three terms from 2019 to 2022. Harjo has claimed Whitman as one of many poetic ancestors. In interviews with the Library of Congress and with, Harjo mentions this poetic lineage as well as her own conception of poetry as something “belonging to everyone” and incredibly diverse.

Harjo’s signature project as poet laureate, “Living Nations, Living Words,” demonstrates the breadth of the community of contemporary Indigenous writers. Connective, alive, and deeply rooted, the project is key to an understanding of American verse as it stands today.

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Suggested Poems:

Tracy K. Smith

American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate 2017-2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019, writes poems of tenderness, wit, political urgency, and community. Her signature project, “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities,” is self-described as a way of “building a bridge between people in cities and university towns, where poetry festivals and reading series are quite common, and those in rural parts of the United States, where such programming doesn’t often reach.” This Whitmanesque urge to bring poetry to the lives of common, rural folk took Smith on seven expeditions spanning two terms as Poet Laureate: to New Mexico, South Carolina, and Kentucky during her first term, and Alaska, South Dakota, Maine, and Louisiana in her second as the project expanded.

On the website for these travels, you’ll find photo galleries alongside audio recordings and interviews with community members. Further reflections and audio from community members (along with those involved in planning and carrying out the project) are compiled in the three-part podcast series “Making ‘American Conversations.’” As part of the project, Smith also edited an anthology called American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, featuring 50 poems by 50 contemporary American poets responding to life in the United States. Her project, like Joy Harjo’s “Living Nations, Living Words,” addresses what poet and literary critic Edward Hirsch has called “the Whitmanian principle to include people.”

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Suggested Poems:

Juan Felipe Herrera

La Casa de Colores

Juan Felipe Herrera U.S. Poet Laureate, 2015- Photo Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts
Juan Felipe Herrera,
U.S. Poet Laureate 2015-2017. Photo courtesy of Blue Flower Arts

Juan Felipe Herrera, U. S. Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, was the first Latinx person to hold the position. Of Whitman, Herrera has said “[he] has been my companion since the sixties.” There is evidence of this companionship in the free-flowing lines and amalgamated language of Herrera’s poems. Herrera uses Whitman in the classroom and has served the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association as Poet in Residence.

One of his signature laureate projects, La Casa de Colores, has two main components: El Jardín, in which Herrera wrote response poems after interacting with Library of Congress collections and curators; and La Familia, a poem crowdsourced from everyday people responding to a series of common prompts. La Familia is particularly Whitmanesque: “an epic poem of all our voices and styles and experiences.”

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Suggested Poems:

Other Select Poets Influenced by Whitman

Martín Espada

Black and white photo of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes, 1942. Jack Delano, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division

Langston Hughes

June Jordan

Natasha Trethewey, U.S. Poet Laureate 2012-2014. Photo by Nancy Crampton

Yusef Komunyakaa

Natasha Trethewey (U.S. Poet Laureate, 2012-2014)

Comments (2)

  1. out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, into the hammock above the grass beneath the willow tree…

  2. As a poet I have been highly inspired by Walt Whitman.
    I felt charmed to see Bill Everson when I was at U.C. Santa Cruz channeling Whitman by the way he dressed and wrote.
    But one thing Whitman exponents sometimes overlook is Whitman’s love of country. Patriotism. Whitman knew America had problems but he always believed we would straighten things out. If you don’t believe that America will straighten things out then you have missed the memo on Walt Whitman.

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