Walt Whitman and Modern Voices in Poetry: A Resource Guide

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 Poets.org, 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.

See Also:

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.”

See Also:

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.”

See Also:

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)

Remembrance: Whitman’s “The Death of Lincoln” and the By the People Whitman Campaign

Walt Whitman devised his “Death of Lincoln” speech in 1879 to commemorate the April 14-15, 1865, demise of Abraham Lincoln. In this post, Manuscript Division curator Barbara Bair explores Whitman’s historic speech, which is at the heart of the newest offering in the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing transcription campaign.

Thoughts in the Time of Pandemic: Walt Whitman at Memorial Day

May is the month of Walt Whitman’s birth and also of Memorial Day, when the nation is asked to pause and delve mindfully into remembrance of past wars and service and sacrifices rendered. Library of Congress Manuscript Division curator Barbara Bair explores Whitman’s experiences and remembrances of war, isolation, suffering, and a turn to art in times of crisis—and how these themes connect to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Walt Whitman’s View of Railroads: To a Locomotive in Winter

The following guest post is by Michael Sconzo, an intern from the University of Virginia in the Science, Technology, and Business Division. Using inspiration and access to the extensive collections of the Library Congress, Michael was asked to write posts on the theme of transportation for the Division’s Inside Adams blog. After reflection, he chose […]

Watch “Walt Whitman: Citizen Poet”

Yesterday, the Library of Congress celebrated Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday with a public open house in the Thomas Jefferson Building. From 2:30 to 5:00, the room buzzed with energy as Library staff showed off a host of rarely seen Whitman collection items from the Manuscript, Rare Book and Special Collections, Prints and Photographs, and Music […]

Walt Whitman in Popular Culture: When Can We Buy a Bobblehead?

The following guest post is by Abby Yochelson, Reference Specialist in the Main Reading Room, Researcher & Reference Services Division. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday in spring 2019 with a series of exhibits, public programs, and a digital crowdsourcing campaign to showcase the Library’s unparalleled collections of Whitman’s writings […]

Celebrate Walt Whitman’s Legacy at the Library of Congress Young Readers Center on June 1 (Tomorrow!)

The following guest post is by Sasha Dowdy, program specialist in the Library’s Young Readers Center. To have great poets, there must be great audiences. So said Walt Whitman, the famous 19th century American poet born on this day in 1819. And most would say Whitman became that great poet with even greater audiences: Whitman […]