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Poets of the past and present in 2014 spotlight (part 2 of 2)

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“Stars ink your fingers
with a lexicon of flame
blazing rare knowledge.”
--from The River of Winged Dreams (Aberjhani)

Every year the Academy of American Poets produces a fascinating poster in celebration of National Poetry Month in April. The Academy, along with such partners as The Poetry Foundation, American Booksellers Association, and American Libraries, very generously makes the poster available for free as a digital download and as a hard copy poster via the U.S. postal service.

The posters are always unique in their visual style and feature quotes, from works by famous authors, which are often both compelling and inspiring. Last year’s poster featured a collage of envelopes, stationery, and writing utensil with the following words from the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic book Letters to a Young Poet:

“Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful.”

Other posters in the past have featured excerpts from the works of such literary luminaries as former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine (2012), poet Elizabeth Bishop (2011), and Emily Dickinson (1998 and 2005). To date, the only African Americans who seem to have been featured by themselves on a poster are Langston Hughes (in 1999 and 2002), and Jay Wright (2008). The posters from 1999 to 2001 fared better so far as diversity is concerned with each containing snapshots of a variety of poets.

Walt Whitman: an American Original

The 2014 poster features these words from the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman’s iconic literary masterpiece Leaves of Grass:

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
--from Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”

The poster is unique in that it features something else likely to tempt many poets to interact with Whitman’s legacy in a way they previously never could have. In addition to the great poet’s words of wisdom, the poster contains a life-sized image of a ruby-tinted bronze cast, made on April 17, 1881, of the great bard’s hand. It sits against a background of green grass and blue sky with white clouds.

The cast was made one year before Whitman’s death and represents the closest any living person could ever hope to come to shaking hands with the great author. It also presents a way for poets and readers to, in a sense, measure their individual greatness against Whitman’s simply by placing their own hand against the life-sized image of the cast. That, of course, would prove nothing, but what it might do for some is provide a satisfying sense of physically connecting with Whitman’s singular genius.

Poetic Diversity

Mr. Whitman was also, in fact, featured on the Academy of American Poets’ memorable 2007 typographic poster with the quote, “And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements of any,” from the poem “As I Walk These Broad, Majestic Days.” Before that, he was the poet of choice in 1998 with the quote “I hear America Singing, the varied carols I hear,” from the poem “I Hear America Singing.”

Walt Whitman’s status as an American original whose genius continues to influence both poetry and concepts of democracy around the world is so great that few are likely to hold a grudge against the Academy for its canonical treatment of him. Yet in this new millennium the voices of still-living poets help many on a daily basis to cope with the nonstop onslaught of war, terrorism, catastrophic “natural” disasters, poverty, and disease. It would therefore seem appropriate if Academy members elected to more consistently feature on the posters every other year a few words from a living poet. That simple gesture could go a long way toward quieting those who insist on debating whether or not poets and poetry still command any relevancy.

by Aberjhani author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

More Readings for National Poetry Month 2014

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