Roaming the Capital For Poetic Legacy Of Walt Whitman

By Marc Fisher

The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page B01

Walt Whitman loved Washington's trees and the Capitol grounds, the river and the dome.  During the decade he spent here, he wandered the city endlessly, without restrictions, as one could in the 1860s, yes, in wartime.

Now, 38 local poets have searched this city for images Whitman might have seen -- the Whitman who found friends and love here, who worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who volunteered as a nurse in many of the 40 hospitals set up to treat the wounded returning from the Civil War.

The poets -- teachers and federal workers, librarians and self-professed Whitmaniacs -- found Whitman all around us. Next month, a festival marking 150 years since the poet's "Leaves of Grass" was published will feature readings and walking tours of his Washington. Right now, a tribute to Whitman is online in Beltway, a quarterly of poetry (

The poets collected here use Whitman as subject, inspiration, even as a character in today's world. As they scanned the frieze on the National Building Museum or looked anew at Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs, they found doorways into the poet's days as a clerk in a capital torn by war, in a country still uncertain of its fate.

Some poets found a city Whitman would probably still recognize in character, if only dimly in physique. Joanne Rocky Delaplaine writes of

the curse of picking up your trail, so sweet:
mulberries and honeysuckle, early morning Potomac River mist,
rain-drenched railroad ties, Pennsylvania Avenue trolley grease.

Some places look much as they did in Whitman's day. M.A. Schaffner describes the aqueduct bridge over Rock Creek:

The bridge was stone and carried a canal
over the river where African hymns
rose from the docks up cobbled streets and clung
to the porticos of clapboard mansions.

There are moments in Washington that call for Whitman's voice. Patricia Gray, who runs the Poetry at Noon program at the Library of Congress, responds to a shooting by summoning an image of "rain smashing against glass -- a wildness breaking in...

We watch from windows or street corners,
with protection -- without -- hunkering
down. . . . We are not safe.

Some poets write of their relationship with Whitman. Davi Walders of Chevy Chase says her mother tried to lure her into "Leaves of Grass," to no avail: Young Walders

could not imagine a life in his same city,
taking the same roads, listening to rain between
the same green islands, wandering along his broad
Potomac shores.

She only imagined it much later, after her mother was gone and she had "wandered out into cool air under mysterious stars."

Hilary Tham, poetry editor of the Potomac Review, recalls how after 9/11,

we all went on, each in our finite separate lives, with
their meals and minutia of daily tasks
under the disquieted heavens of that afternoon
so swift passing, so slow passing. . . . And I am glad you did not see this,
Walt, glad you are dead these hundred years.

Some poets came to the project with Whitman's presence already suffused through their daily existence. Rosemary Winslow, who teaches at Catholic University, lives on a street the poet once called home. She summons Whitmanesque images of waving grasses and immeasurable heavens playing against contemporary scenes of piercing headlamps and the search for respite from artificial light.

Others sought to apply Whitman's brash expressions of American life to a new context. Daniel Pravda, who teaches at Norfolk State University, places his "Poem Written in Barbeque Sauce" at an Arby's at 1:25 p.m.

Some guy angrily announces, "I said no mayo!" and "the big lady behind the frier" coughs as she "scoops curlies into cups," and here is Whitman himself, paying "for coffee with pocket change and the senior discount." Whitman "blinks and pours a packet of salt in his coffee, and pulls the PUSH door."

A century and a half after Whitman left town, his Washington remains a city of monuments, stone and breathing. Here, Myra Sklarew, who teaches literature at American University, finds equal measures of burden and hope:

Each of us has monuments in the bone case of memory. Earth-
bound, I take my sac of marble and carry it down lonely city streets where our
generals on horseback and a tall bearded man keep watch over all their citizens.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company