by Alexandra Wilder
May 14, 2019
Walt Whitman (1887) in New York, by photographer George C. Cox
Walt Whitman (1887) by George C. Cox

We here at Brooklyn Public Library are excited for the opportunity to celebrate Walt Whitman on the occasion of his 200th birthday! Whitman lived and worked for part of his life in Brooklyn and penned “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” so, as you can imagine, Brooklynites are eager to claim him as OUR poet (although, Camden, NJ, you can have some too--there’s enough to go around).

Yet today Whitman is celebrated not only for his voice or his association with Brooklyn, he is also embraced as an iconic, queer poet—his sexuality being inferred by many through analysis of his poetry and biographical details. The Whitman tradition is indeed alive and well and is to me characterized by three, key stylistic components: a focus on the body, celebrating language and exhibiting exuberant emotion. But who, you might ask, are these poets carrying this tradition forward? While Whitman’s impact on contemporary poetry is wide-ranging, three queer poets who each draw on lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) and who also embrace these Whitmanesque aspects in their work, immediately come to mind. (For more poetry suggestions, or suggestions in any genre, turn to Brooklyn Public Library’s BookMatch service, for a curated list of recommendations from BPL librarians.)

“…. loveroot, silkthread, / crotch and vine” – Celebration of language

Sam Sax is winner of the National Poetry Series and the author of two collections of poetry. Madness is one of my favorite recent poetry collections, with its playful use of language and musical turns of phrase. I was glad to be home alone on the occasion of reading this book, so I could madly mutter aloud lines like “a coven of bees blushing” and “thirst curtain / dirt curtsy. / cursed & forever bursting / at the seams”. Sax’s poems, in addition to sounding utterly beautiful and musical, address mental illness, medicine, love, and sex while they explore relationships between men in all their variety and nuance.

“I am the poet of the body” – Focus on the body

Danez Smith is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and finalist for the National Book Award. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead was shortlisted for the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2018 Literary Prize and is a truly stunning collection that exhibits innovative use of craft and form, while drawing the reader deep into the visceral with poems that, as Roxane Gay writes, focus on “black men and their imperiled bodies, [and] gay men and their impassioned bodies.” Wonder upon lines such as, “for you I’d send my body to battle / my body, let my blood sing of tearing / itself apart, hollow cords / of white knights’ intravenous joust.”

“Through me forbidden voices, / Voices of sexes and lusts” – Voicing exuberant emotion

Ana Božičević, also a Lambda Literary Award winner, was born in Zagreb, Croatia and emigrated to New York City in 1997. Her collection Joy of Missing Out teems with emotion while addressing the online world in which we have become more and more immersed. “Stars gossip with a look of love on the world's edge. / The overlooked, broken, the queer and dark-- / All those Heathcliffy words / Relax into a / Sphere of unsafety—.” These poems are shot through with longing for love and connection.

For more queer poets carrying on the Whitman tradition—and/or forging their own unique paths—take a look at the fantastic collection Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, edited by Christopher Soto, featuring Natalie Diaz, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Robin Coste Lewis, Joy Harjo, Richard Blanco, Erika L. Sánchez, Jericho Brown, Carl Phillips, Tommy Pico, Eduardo C. Corral, and Chen Chen, among many others.

Here’s to a world full to the brim of “Heathcliffy words”, Whitmanesque “yawps” and other exuberant expressions of life in these still ample hills of Brooklyn! Happy birthday Walt!

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