For me, Whitman will always be the poet who threw open the door of American literature, the poet who defined American literature as separate from and no longer influenced by British poetry. He celebrated the individual, the body, and the American experiment in democracy and he spoke not only for his own time but for our time as well.
We are living through a moment in American history where the voices of hate and division and prejudice are trying to drown out the optimistic voice we find in Whitman’s poetry. I want to believe that they will not succeed and that Whitman’s voice was prophetic of all that is good and open-minded and celebratory in America.
I think of my immigrant parents and how much they loved this country and all it stands for, and I believe that Whitman’s poetry encompasses the diversity in all of us, the America he so clearly wrote about in his poems. I want to thank him for his optimism that mirrors my own. I want to thank him for still being so relevant 200 years after his birth. I want to thank him for all he did to change American poetry, to make us believe in the American voice. There is a direct arc between his work and Ginsberg’s poetry. They both created a space for the poets who were too often ignored or denigrated such as women, people of color, and LBGTQ who followed their example in their own unique way.
They confirm my belief that poetry can save us. Along with Whitman, we all need to sing “The Song of Myself” louder and louder in order to drown out all the ugliness that threatens to swamp us.