200th Birthday Celebration

The 2019 celebration of Walt Whitman’s birthday was a particularly special one, marking the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth. To commemorate the bicentennial, the Walt Whitman Association partnered with Rutgers-Camden for a celebration of the poets’ life. The Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts is hosting at the Stedman Gallery a contemporary art exhibition entitled Democratic Vistas: Whitman, Body and Soul, which was curated by the Whitman Studies Program head Professor Tyler Hoffman. The exhibit features works of art inspired by Whitman’s life and poetry, coupled with artifacts from the collection at the Walt Whitman House Historic Site. The opening of the exhibit coincided with the birthday celebration, and the two were brought together to provide a larger space for the bicentennial ceremony and poetry contest.

Before the reception for the exhibition, a special birthday ceremony and poetry reading was held. Walt Whitman Association President David Stedman emceed the event, with opening remarks by Chancellor Phoebe Haddon, poetry reading from the winners of the Bernadette Stridick High School Poetry Contest, and a sampling of honored guests who were invited to speak on Whitman and his legacy in Camden.

Darrel Ford speaking at the 200th Birthday Celebration

The first speaker, Whitman scholar and portrayer Darrel Ford, is a long-time friend and member of the Whitman Association who has regularly attended the birthday party for years, as many know. Darrel told the story of his relationship with Walt Whitman, which started 80 years ago when he stumbled upon a wayside store within Whitman’s birthplace on Huntingdon, Long Island while riding on his bike around his home town. He recalled never having noticed the little store before, and entered to have a look around. This is where he was first introduced to Whitman’s poetry, and it was this day that he fell in love with the poet.

He told the audience about his life, reflecting on his youth and his years in service during the Korean War, and recalled keeping Whitman by his side, a poetic companion for the majority of his life. Ford spoke fondly of the Whitman House in Camden, and how he has been visiting Camden for over half of his life and always found friends in the city, much like Whitman. To round off his speech, he recited two of his favorite poems; Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d in his bold, Whitman-like cadence.

Ford’s recitations led into the crux of the event – the presentation of the winners of the poetry contest. The finalists and winning poems were especially vibrant this year. With a theme of celebration, the participants were asked to write an original poem in the vein of Whitman’s style while reflecting their own unique voice. The results were outstanding, showing great promise for another generation of readers and writers influenced by Whitman. 

The recipients of the prizes were as follows:

  • Honorable Mention: Ty Young, Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School
  • Honorable Mention: Matin Yaqubi, Friends Select School
  • Fourth Place: Shannon Goetter, Haddonfield Memorial High School
  • Third Place: Rachel Agosto-Ginsburg, Cherry Hill High School East
  • Second Place: Eve Jensen, Haddonfield Memorial High School
  • First Place, Bernadette M. Stridick Prize: Payton Weiner, Haddonfield Memorial High School

 

Darrel Ford (center) with the 2019 Poetry Contest winners.

 

Detail from There Are a Dozen of Me Afloat by Lewis Colburn and Mark Stockton

This year’s crop of high school poets was a tough act to follow, but the keynote speaker John Giannotti took to the podium with poise and eloquence. He was introduced by Whitman Association Board Member and Professor of English at Rutgers-Camden Carol Singley.  Dr. Singley spoke of Giannotti’s work at Rutgers-Camden as an influential faculty member and a world renowned sculptor. Giannotti was the chair of the Fine Arts Department at Rutgers-Camden and during his tenure, played a key role in the expansion of the university’s Camden campus.

Giannotti took the podium to talk not of himself and his work but about one of his greatest influences – Walt Whitman. He discussed Whitman’s life, not only his time in Camden but the trajectory from his childhood in Long Island to his final years on Mickle Street, painting a picture for the audience of how Whitman became the poet that we know and love today. Giannotti described some of Whitman’s eccentricities, like his constant proximity to bodies of water and love of industries like the ferries and the docks in the cities he lived in, or his devotion to the written and printed word. While describing Whitman’s early years working in the printing trade, he explained that Whitman “not only loved the words that were being printed, he loved printing them. Not only were words images, he thought of them as individual letters set on a page that he set himself.“ It was this love for the detail and the process and all the moving parts of life that has Whitman resonate with future generations of readers, writers, artists, and many more individuals the world over. Gionnatti is one of many who has been profoundly influenced by the Bard of Democracy, and encapsulated in his speech what made Whitman such a timeless voice, one that made him more than a poet but “someone who has followed our lives.”

Finishing up his speech, Gionnatti turned to the youngest Whitman fans in the audience – the winners of the poetry contest. Conveying what everyone in attendance had been thinking, he praised their work, and encouraged them to continue to write, question, and create. “You six high school poets are discovering yourself, you are finding something new. I applaud you”!