Walt Whitman Poetfan: Jan Freeman
In 1993 I wrote a section about Walt Whitman for a secondary school literature textbook. While I was researching Whitman's life, I learned that he self-published Leaves of Grass on July 4th. So, beginning in 1993, I started having a celebration every July 4th at 10 a.m.: "Bagels and Walt."
Sometimes the gatherings have 3 people, and sometimes there have been more than 40. Sometimes there are only poets but usually there is a big mix—including people who have never read Whitman before. Everyone gathers at my home and we read Leaves of Grass aloud." Some years we only read "Song of Myself" and in other years we read the entire poem.
People come from as far away as Washington State! It's become my one ritual. And it is a thrilling experience each time—because it always changes— with different voices reading different sections. I know many of the people who come for the reading and there are always new faces—friend of friends of friends. We sit out on the back lawn in a circle. I usually begin the poem, and everyone reads—people of all ages—from 5 or 6 to 90 years old! With every reading, the poem changes for me. Some years I hear the lines about death; some years the eroticism takes over; some years race and gender stand out; and some years the sections about God feel central. After 9/11 the section about the firemen was devastating in a way I had never experienced and it is forever transformed.
The poem is alive. I look forward to July 4th every year because that is Walt's day, the day for reading "Leaves of Grass" aloud, and the day to share the poem with friends who now enjoy the tradition as much as I do. Everyone is welcome! Come to Ashfield, book in hand. Bagels and watermelon and Walt for all!