Remembering the ‘poet of democracy’

May. 02, 2013 @ 03:40 PM

He was the first poet to create a new voice for America, and his language spoke to the people, celebrating everyone from laborers to presidents. A group made up of writers, Carrboro and Chapel Hill town officials, and anyone who still wants to sign up will celebrate the poetic vision of Walt Whitman with a community reading of “Song of Myself” Saturday.
Jeri Lynn Schulke, director of ArtsCenter’s theater productions, said she got a call one day from WCHL FM reporter Aaron Keck, who read that the ArtsCenter would be putting on a production of the play “Walt,” by composer Jonathan Price and playwright William W. Whitman. Keck had participated in an annual marathon reading of the poem held at South Street Seaport in New York City. Schulke thought a local version of that event would be a good way to draw attention to Whitman and the play, and began calling people.
Scheduled readers include Shirlette Ammons, Art Menius, Lynden Harris and many more, but the reading is open to anyone. Stanzas are being assigned, and “we still do have some slots absolutely,” Schulke said. Anyone who wants to participate may contact her at the ArtsCenter (see Go and Do box).
Whitman (1819-1892) worked on his poem “Leaves of  Grass” most of his life, revising and adding poems. He also was a printer, newspaper reporter, editor and editorialist. During the Civil War, he helped take care of wounded soldiers. His voice continues to be heard: Allen Ginsberg and other beat generation writers cite him as an influence, as do many modern spoken word and “slam” poets.
The ArtsCenter will present “Walt” May 10-12, and May 16-19. “Walt” follows Whitman’s life, focusing on “how a person becomes an artist,” how Whitman “became the poet that we all know,” Schulke said. Whitman “was so connected and wanted to be connected to something larger than himself.” His poetry “is about creating this utopia of America,” and finding connections with the spiritual. “Walt” is about how that search for connections influenced Whitman as an artist, Schulke said.
Keck said he received a call one day to participate in the New York reading, and about 100 people showed up. He plans to attend Saturday’s reading, but does not plan to read. Keck, who used to teach Whitman’s poetry, quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said an American poet would transform poetry, and “speak to an audience that had never been addressed before,” Keck said. Whitman sat down and made Emerson’s prediction happen, Keck said.
His message of unity that underlies much of his poetry echoes today, Keck said. “We’re always trying as a country to be inclusive and be democratic. … It’s always a promise that’s never quite fulfilled, so Whitman is always relevant.”


Go and Do
WHAT: Community reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
WHEN: Saturday, May 4, beginning at 1 p.m.
WHERE: Weaver Street Lawn, Carrboro
ADMISSION: Free, but donations for the Orange County Literacy Council will be accepted. To participate, contact Jeri Lynn Schulke at