"I celebrate myself," wrote poet Walt Whitman, but this year many others are celebrating him, too.
Dressed as Walt Whitman with a snowy white exuberance of a beard, slouch hat, open collar, and carrying a hickory walking stick, Darrel Blaine Ford entered Theater Ten Ten on Park Avenue on Tuesday while Pam Fleming played portions of "Brooklyn Journalist" and "Brooklyn Poet," trumpet fanfares composed by Paula Kimper. The event marked the poet's 186th birthday and is among a number of programs this year planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass."
Acknowledging applause, the actor invoked the language of fellowship favored by Whitman, saying, "Thank you, camerados." Mr. Ford read three editorials on topics of regional interest - locusts, fishing, and temperature - published in the Long Islander, a newspaper Whitman founded in 1838 when he was just 19. "There is no copy of the newspaper extant," Mr. Ford said. The pieces were republished with attribution in the Hempstead Inquirer.
Karen Karbiener, an instructor at Columbia University, discussed what Whitman might have enjoyed on his birthday: "He was partial to champagne and oysters," she said, as well as bratwurst and beer. But, she noted, "Whitman would not have celebrated what was, but what is." Saying Whitman was about celebrating "now," she added, "We should be looking for the Whitmans among us today." Without peering at a text, Ms. Karbiener also recited Whitman verse from memory. She leads a Walt Whitman walking tour on July 3, which will be sponsored by the South Street Seaport Museum.
Trinidad-born Hakim Williams, who recently graduated from Columbia University Teachers College, recited an editorial Whitman wrote on educational reform for the Brooklyn Evening Star in 1845. With exhortative gestures and memorable poise at the podium, Mr. Williams read Whitman decrying corporal punishment as "fit for the tamers of menageries" but wrong for the schoolroom.
Theater Ten Ten's producing artistic director, Judith Jarosz, read a Whitman piece from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called, "Why Do Theaters Languish? And How Shall the American Stage Be Resuscitated?" In the article Whitman called on America to jettison then-prevalent English plays and create a theater responsive to "the national heart of the people."
"Emerson had called for a new American poetry, and 10 years later Walt Whitman appeared," said Pace University professor Walter Raubicheck, a scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Beats, and Alfred Hitchcock. He drew a parallel of Whitman's call for the creation of an indigenous American drama: "Then Walt Whitman called for a new American theater, and 50 years later, Eugene O'Neill appeared."
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Woodling sang Whitman's "I Think I Could Turn and Live With the Animals," with music by Jennifer Griffith in its world premiere. Then a quartet gathered around the keyboard for a haunting rendition of "Thanks in Old Age." A number of audience members, including Dr. Yehuda Nir, were tapping their feet to the captivating music.
In a floral-patterned summer dress, Ruth Juliet Wikler read, "One Hour to Madness and Joy" from "Leaves of Grass." In late July, her company, Cirque Boom Circus Theater, will perform a piece inspired by Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and promoter P.T. Barnum's entertainment acts. Barnum shapes our outer world and Walt Whitman shapes our inner world, Ms. Wikler told the Knickerbocker.
Noting Whitman's opposition to both the Victorian and the puritanical, Daniela Gioseffi contributed her own charged rendition of "I Sing the Body Electric." "Whitman was part of the enlightenment of America," she said. The editor of the anthologies "On Prejudice: A Global Perspective" and "Women on War: International Writings," Ms. Gioseffi read her own poem about social justice.
Mr. Ford, the educator and self-styled Walt Whitman "personator," told how 66 years ago he began his lifelong "love affair" with Walt Whitman. He described growing up on rural Long Island. At age 9 while bicycling he came upon an old farmhouse in West Hills which bore a bronze plaque that noted Whitman was born there. The next day he told his classmates at school in Amityville and learned that one of his teachers was related to Whitman through the poet's mother's brother.
For those who missed this celebration, several other Whitman events are coming up, including a marathon reading of "Song of Myself," sponsored by the South Street Seaport, on June 5 aboard the ship Peking, and an all-day Whitman celebration on June 18 in Fort Greene Park and along Myrtle Avenue.
During the slicing of the birthday cake, Mr. Ford told the Knickerbocker he is a member of Solo Together, a New England organization composed of people who represent others onstage. He told the Knickerbocker, "I know one Galileo, two other Whitmans, and four Emily Dickinsons."
STANLEY'S CENTENNIAL Poet Stanley Kunitz's 100th birthday is on July 29. But friends, family, and admirers filled the Tribeca Performing Arts Center to celebrate early. Last month Karl Kirchwey, Marie Howe, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gerald Stern, and others paid tribute to Mr. Kunitz before an audience filled with poets, including Grace Paley, Sophie Cabot Black, Donna Masini, Liam Rector, and many others.
In his centennial year, Mr. Kunitz has a new book out called "The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden" (W.W. Norton), written with Genine Lentine. Introducing the program, poet Galway Kinnell said, "Stanley Kunitz has written further into old age than any other poet I know." Mr. Kinnell continued, "As Stanley grew up, his poetry became younger."
After the intermission, the tribute continued with the spotlight on Mr. Kunitz, attired in gray-blue tweed and a yellow-squash colored tie. Holding a manuscript in his hand, the poet read a poem about his childhood.
The audience laughed when poet Cleopatra Mathis, a former student of Mr. Kunitz's at Columbia University, said she and her youngish classmates were afraid, when he was in his 70s, that some of their bad lines of poetry might kill him. As students they observed with some apprehension his characteristic clutching of his heart with his left hand as he'd look skyward, fearing that a bad line or two had truly gotten to him.
More importantly, Ms. Mathis recalled Mr. Kunitz's concern for moral values. Poet Marie Ponsot spoke of Mr. Kunitz's commitment to building community. "And he is doing what we want to do when we grow up," she said. She said Mr. Kunitz embodies his credo: "Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true, poetry is for the sake of the life."