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Visiting Walt
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Visiting Walt is a compilation of poems inspired by the life and work of Walt Whitman. (Photo courtesy/University of Iowa Press)
Walt Whitman died more than a century ago. But poets still talk back to the man who changed poetry and opened the world of free verse to future generations. Two professors at Minnesota State University Moorhead compiled a new book that celebrates the contemporary influence of Walt Whitman. It's called Visiting Walt.

Moorhead, Minn. — Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, but you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you must justify me.

Walt Whitman issued that challenge nearly 150 years ago. Contemporary poets are still trying to answer. The poetic response to Walt Whitman is the focus of Visiting Walt, a complilation of 100 poems by 100 poets.

Minnesota State University Moorhead professors Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro edited Visiting Walt.

"This book provides a response from poets who aren't necessarily scholars but who see Whitmans work as significant and inspirational," says Coghill.

"I like to refer to the book as a Whitman sampler," adds Tammaro. "You don't quite know what you're getting until you unwrap it and take a bite."

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Image Thom Tammaro and Sheila Coghill

Thom Tammaro says nearly every poet writing today is influenced by literary giants like Walt Whitman. Whitman challenged convention in his day.

His first published work was Leaves of Grass. It was like nothing in literature at the time. Writing about sex in Victorian society wasn't a path to popularity. It's said Whitman was fired from a job with the federal government for writing a vulgar book.

But perhaps more importantly for generations of future poets, Walt Whitman shattered the bounds of rhyme and meter. He's thought of as the father of free verse.

"He carves this incredibly new path that no one else has been down. and he does it with such energy and he find the beauty in english that is just amazing," says Sheila Coghill. "American poetry has been influenced by that ever since. We wouldn't have an Allen Ginsburg if we didn't have a Walt Whitman. Those poets look back and they have to acknowledge him as their poetic forefather."

"What Whitman is to poetry, Picasso is to art or Schoenberg is to music," says Thom Tammaro. "The person who comes forth and just sort of breaks things open."

Visiting Walt is the second in a series for Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro. They've published a similar compilation of poetry related to Emily Dickinson. Their next subject will be Robert Frost.

To select 100 poems reflecting Walt Whitman, Coghill and Tammaro sorted through hundreds of samples ranging from serious to humorous.

One of Thom Tammaro's favorites is called Meeting the Master, about finding a tiny Walt Whitman stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

Thom Tammaro says he knew that was a keeper moments after slicing open the envelope in which it arrived. The pleasure of finding such gems made up for the stacks of cheap imitations.

"I mean some people who don't understand prosity, don't understand the techniques of free verse, might not know there is such a thing as bad free verse. But there is and we got a lot of that," says Coghill.

"It's very tempting to want to imitate the style,(of Whitman) forgetting poems are more than just imitation of style, and you can't be Walt Whitman," says Tammaro. Tammaro and Coghill don't intend Visiting Walt to lend great new insight to the works of Whitman. Thom Tammaro says there's an exhaustive body of scholarly examination of Whitman.

He says Visiting Walt is a chance to showcase a conversation, as generations of poets talk back to the master.

"I hope what happens if people read the book is two things, I hope they'll be interested in returning to Whitman and reading Whitman again," says Tammaro. "I also hope if people like the poems of individual writers the book it will lead them to read the work of other writers besides the one poem in here. In many ways the book is a sampler, a celebration of Whitman, a celebration of poetry, a celebration of poets."

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