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Back to listOct 7, 2005

BRC Sponsors "'Talking Back' to Whitman: Poetry Matters" to Commemorate 150th Anniversary of Leaves of Grass

Professor Folsom delivers keynote address

On October 1, 2005 the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (BRC) sponsored "'Talking Back' to Whitman: Poetry Matters," the second annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, at its center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Commemorating the 150th anniversary this year of Whitman's masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, scholars and poets from Asia and the Americas gathered to listen, learn, and respond to Whitman's poetic vision of America and democracy.

In his welcoming remarks, BRC President Masao Yokota mentioned that BRC's founder Daisaku Ikeda, a peace activist and poet, believes that a common spiritual ground and pathway to peace can be discovered through poetry. BRC Executive Director Virginia (Straus) Benson explained that last year's Forum led to a desire to bring the wisdom of poetry into conversations for peace. Considering the many conflicts in the world today, she suggested that a discussion about Whitman's vision of democracy would be a fitting celebration of Leaves of Grass.

Joel Myerson, professor of American Literature Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, provided a historical and literary context, saying that when Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, critics assailed it as immodest and "quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society." Modern literary scholars, however, view Whitman's poetry as "a watershed in American literary history," because by rejecting the formal structures of traditional poetry in favor of free verse, Whitman opened the way for later poets to experiment stylistically. Myerson observed: "Whitman praised America's democracy and the interconnectedness of its citizens as a means of making all of us equal."

In his keynote address, Ed Folsom, professor of English at the University of Iowa described how poets of diverse backgrounds have been "talking back" to Whitman. He spoke in detail of the African-American response, focusing on the work of Langston Hughes.

Sarah Wider, professor of English at Colgate University, spoke on "The Power of the Poetic Voice," and underscored the vital role that poetry, poets, and their readers play in the creation of a just world. Professor Wider cited Mr. Ikeda's poetry and his belief that those who are able to manifest their full potential and contribute to society are all poets at heart, likening this to Whitman's belief that poetry has the power to open all doors.

From left to right: Professor Ken Price, BRC President Masao Yokota, Professor Ed Folsom, Professor Emeritus Joel Myerson, Professor Ronald Bosco and BRC Executive Director Ginny (Straus) Benson

The afternoon session consisted of an international panel of distinguished scholars and poets chaired by Kenneth Price, professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska. Cristanne Miller, professor of English from Pomona College, provided the feminist perspective on Whitman. Guiyou Huang, dean of Undergraduate Studies at St. Thomas University, explained Whitman's influence on both Chinese literature and democracy. The complex impact and reception of Whitman's poetry in Latin America was discussed by Enrico Mario Santi, professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Yuji Kami, professor of American Literature at Soka University in Japan, continued the intercultural presentations with a Japanese Buddhist response to Whitman. Leaves of Grass, introduced in 1892, appealed to Japanese writers in form and content due to its departure from their own rigid literary conventions and its message of self-discovery and inner exploration. Professor Kami focused on stylistic and thematic similarities between Whitman and Daisaku Ikeda, who recognized a kindred spirit when he read Leaves of Grass in 1951. Like Whitman, Ikeda's poetic voice is expansive as it seeks to bridge the inner life, the life of society, and that of the cosmos to discover "the sublime and eternal in all being."

Spirited discussion followed each presentation, touching upon poetry's role in modern culture, the importance of mindful readers, Whitman's shortcomings and silences, the strengths of his work, and his vision for a "universal democracy."

[Adapted and borrowed from an October 7, 2005 Seikyo Shimbun article and a report by Kathleen Olesky for BRC.]