Kevin Riordan: On his birthday, Walt Whitman remains very much alive

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Darrel Blaine Ford as the poet at Camden's Whitman House. Whitman designed his own tomb, also in Camden. "I think he knew he was going to have a life long after death," says Whitman scholar Tyler Hoffman, "and he wanted a place for people to commune with him."

Today is Walt Whitman's birthday.

The scruffy, sensual, stentorian bard, who gave us an ever-evolving masterpiece called Leaves of Grass, came into this world on May 31, 1819.

And although Whitman died on March 26, 1892, he's never really left us.

"He pops up a lot," says Leo Blake, curator of the Walt Whitman House in downtown Camden. "He's still relevant."

Consider the TV commercial campaign for Levi's jeans two years ago. It used Whitman words and even what some scholars argued was his voice - taken from a copy of a wax-cylinder recording made circa 1888.

Consider also your local high school English class, where Whitman is likely anthologized (and quite possibly sanitized).

Even better, look to Camden, home not only of the house where he lived, but also the tomb where he rests.

The house on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard attracts between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors from around the world per year.

And, though there are no visitor logs at Harleigh Cemetery, people stop there regularly to pay their respects; a Chilean film crew shot footage at the tomb last year.

The mausoleum "really is an incredible monument to himself," says Whitman scholar Tyler Hoffman, whose new book American Poetry in Performance: From Whitman to Hip-Hop will be published this year.

"Whitman designed the tomb himself with money he was given for other purposes," says Hoffman, an associate dean at Rutgers University in Camden. "I think he knew he was going to have a life long after death, and he wanted a place for people to commune with him."

Commune they do, often bearing messages. A few months ago, Oaklyn photographer Curt Hudson sent me shots he made of what look like letters, each neatly folded, placed under a stone, and left within the mausoleum gates.

My two recent visits turned up no such missives. Chris Mojica, manager of the 155-acre Victorian cemetery, says visitors often bring mementos, which are allowed to remain for what he termed a respectful period of time and then disposed of.

"It's amazing," Mojica says. "They leave books, poems, and letters. They leave rosary beads, flowers. . . . They leave pumpkins at Halloween."

Others bring pennies, says Antoinette Vielehr, executive director of the 110-member Walt Whitman Association, adding that pennies are significant because they bear the image of Abraham Lincoln.

A volunteer nurse for the wounded in Washington hospitals during the Civil War, Whitman wrote "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the elegy that exquisitely articulated the nation's lasting grief about Lincoln's assassination.

That magnificent poem surely helped deepen public regard for Whitman, whose own wartime service (and respect for men in uniform) forever linked him to the Civil War and its aftermath.

Indeed, the theme of the association's annual high school poetry contest this year (the war's 150th anniversary) was "Conflict and Reconciliation." Young poets were asked to contemplate, among other subjects, how Whitman tried to heal the nation with his work.

That poetry - exuberant, exalted, earthy - surely is a major reason Whitman's popularity endures. His iconic image is another: A bohemian, possibly gay artiste who was also a man of the people, the guy looks like a hippie.

Think Jerry Garcia.

Or a spiritual guru.

"People bring mementos because they've been touched by what he's written, because he guides them in their lives," Mojica says. "It's like a sacred thing."

And nearly 120 years after his death, the Good Gray Poet is still making new friends and fans.

"While he was alive, Whitman said he'd yet to be discovered," Blake says. "I like to ask visitors to the house, 'Have you discovered Whitman today?' "

 


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the Metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq