Walt Whitman innovated a uniquely American poetry. In celebration of the bicentennial of his birth on May 31, 2019, explore this selection of his poems, prose, and ephemera; essays about his life and work; lesson plans and other educator resources; and poems in dialogue with his legacy.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face…
“I Sing the Body Electric”
I sing the body electric…
“O Captain! My Captain!”
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done…
“O Me! O Life!”
O Me! O life! of the questions of these recurring…
I wander all night in my vision…
“Song of Myself”
I Celebrate myself, and sing myself…
“Song of the Open Road”
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road…
“There was a child went forth every day”
There was a child went forth every day…
"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"
Vigil strange I kept on the field one night...
"We Two, How Long We Were Fool'd"
We two, how long we were fool'd...
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer…
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d…
A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads
In this essay printed at the end of the 1891–92 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman considers his own career and poetic intentions as well as democracy and the wider literary canon.
A Love Letter to Peter Doyle
In this letter dated August 21, 1869, Whitman writes to Peter Doyle, his companion of many years, “Dear comrade, I think of you very often. My love for you is indestructible….”
Specimen Days [The Inauguration]
In this excerpt from Specimen Days, first published in 1882, Whitman remembers Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. He writes, “The lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face.”
Specimen Days [Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier]
Walt Whitman records a letter he wrote to the mother of a soldier who died under his care in a Washington, D.C. hospital. He writes, “I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while.”
Specimen Days [Manhattan from the Bay]
In this excerpt on his return to New York City, Whitman recalls viewing "the long stretch of Sandy Hook, the highlands of Navesink, and the many vessels outward and inward bound."
“It is hard to characterize quickly the stunning power, the lyrical grace of these remarkable, formalized quatrains. The song of mourning has been transformed into a song of 'praise! praise! praise!' His intensified diction, his incredible confidence, his giving-over to the 'bliss of death' is Whitman at his most reverent and awestruck.” —David Baker in “Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief”
“This most American of American poets invented, after all, free verse as we know it…. But Whitman may not look, to those coming to Leaves of Grass some 160 years after its first publication, as truly radical as he was.” —Mark Doty in “Our Sly Progenitor: Revisiting Walt Whitman”
“There was a man, Walt Whitman, who lived in the nineteenth century, in America, who began to define his own person, who began to tell his own secrets, who outlined his own body, and made an outline of his own mind, so other people could see it. He was sort of the prophet of American democracy….” —Allen Ginsberg in “Taking a Walk through Leaves of Grass”
“Because the vast sweep of democracy is still incomplete even in America today...because the physical life of the Brooklyn ferries and the Broadway street cars and the Mississippi river banks and the still fresh battlefields of World War II continue to pulse with the same heartbeats of humanity as in Whitman’s time, his poetry strikes us now with the same immediacy it must have awakened in its earliest readers in the 1850s.” —Langston Hughes in “The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman”
“Whitman’s all-inclusive sensuality and humanity not only affirmed my own, but lead me to an understanding and eventual acceptance of my precious otherness and burgeoning homosexuality…. His work transcended and encompassed creation with no shame but pure wonder. Who was I to argue with such wisdom.” —Joseph O. Legaspi in “Queer Poets on the Poems That Changed Their Lives”
“He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.' He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission.” —Ezra Pound in “What I Feel About Walt Whitman”
“Walt Whitman’s poem ‘The Sleepers’ opens with the line ‘I wander all night in my vision’ and proceeds to describe the poet’s travels in his nocturnal imagination.” —Anne Waldman in “The ‘l’ Is Another”
In the following poems, classic and contemporary poets engage with Walt Whitman, his poetry, and his legacy.
“What Is the Grass” by Lee Ann Brown
The child asks, bringing it to me in handfuls…
“This Man” by Witter Bynner
If only you were here, Walt Whitman…
“What Is the Grass” by Mark Doty
On the margin…
“How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada
I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street…
“A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman…
“Granada Sings Whitman” by Nathalie Handal
By the river Genil…
“One Day” by Marie Howe
One day the patterned carpet, the folding chairs…
“Father Tongue” by Jennifer Kronovet
Each issue of Blade magazine describes a man…
“A Pact” by Ezra Pound
I make truce with you, Walt Whitman…
We Sing America
Focusing on “songs” about the American experience at different points in history, this lesson plan features Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
“The Indications [Excerpt]” by Walt Whitman
In this Teach This Poem, students look closely at a Hubble Telescope image of a stellar nursery and consider how this image and Whitman’s poem make them feel.
Walt Whitman, Poet and Keen Observer
In this lesson plan, students read Whitman’s poem “Manhatta,” focusing on his keen sense of detail.
“Election Day, November, 1884” by Walt Whitman
In this Teach This Poem, students learn more about the presidential election of 1884 and write a paragraph or poem responding to politics today.
“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman
This Teach This Poem presents Whitman’s iconic poem alongside a mural commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in 1934.
Essays and Teaching Guides
Walking Tours of Whitman's New York