Walt Whitman’s towering achievement as a trailblazer of modern American poetry was celebrated during the Sept. 12 dedication ceremony for the Literary Arts stamp honoring the 19th-century writer.
“He’s considered by many as the father of modern American poetry,” Cara Greene, the Postal Service’s controller and vice president, said during the event.
“The key word here is ‘modern’ because of the topics and themes he explored — freedom, human dignity and democracy — and his stylistic innovations that at times mimicked ordinary speech, and the long cadences of biblical poetry. His work continues to resonate with us today.”
The event was held in Huntington Station, NY, where Whitman (1819-1892) was born. This year marks the bicentennial of his birth.
Breaking away from dominant European poetic forms, Whitman experimented with free verse and wrote in an unconventional new style.
Powerfully evoking almost every aspect of 19th-century American life, he was one of the nation’s greatest champions and aimed to embody the democratic ethos itself.
His groundbreaking works include the monumental “Song of Myself,” in which he argues that only through democracy, and the broad liberty it promises, can the nation approach the divine.
Other poems include “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the best-known of his urban pieces; the intimate, reflective “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; and “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which he boldly treats the physical, sensual body as equal to the soul.
The 1855 publication of “Leaves of Grass,” a collection of 12 untitled pieces, marked the beginning of his lifelong masterwork. In revisions during the next four decades until his death, it grew to include almost 400 poems, giving a distinct voice to the American spirit that endures.
“Walt Whitman’s message of equality, tolerance and the idea that we are all of the natural world, not separate from it, drew international acclaim in the 19th century and rings just as true today,” Erik Kulleseid, a New York state parks commissioner, said in his remarks.
The nondenominated stamp, which is good for mail up to 3 ounces, is available at Post Offices and usps.com.
It features a portrait of Whitman based on an 1869 photograph. In the background, a hermit thrush sitting on the branch of a lilac bush recalls “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s elegy for President Abraham Lincoln written soon after his assassination on April 14, 1865.
The other speakers at the ceremony were Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association; Jeffrey Gould, an association trustee; Darrel Blaine Ford, a Whitman impersonator; David Reynolds, an English professor with the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and Michael Gargiulo, a WNBC-TV news anchor who served as master of ceremonies.
The Literary Arts series, launched 40 years ago, has now honored 32 writers, including John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Flannery O’Connor.