Words of ages: Fans to celebrate Walt Whitman at marathon reading

Words of ages: Fans to celebrate Walt Whitman at marathon reading
Photo by Karen Karbiener

They’re celebrating themselves — and one of Brooklyn’s greatest poets.

A group of self-described “Whitmaniacs” are gathering at Brooklyn Bridge Park on June 8 for a marathon reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — the free verse epic that constitutes a major chunk of the universally known poetry collection “Leaves of Grass.” The organizer said the event is a chance to celebrate Whitman, who penned and printed the poem’s first edition wile living in the county of Kings.

“You can really say that the book was absolutely born in Brooklyn,” said organizer Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar teaching at New York University. “I just want to keep Walt Whitman on the streets and keep poetry alive.”

But Karbiener is not the only person drawing inspiration from the Bard of Brooklyn. Scores of people signed up to perform one of the poem’s 52 sections aloud this year — so many that she may have to turn some away, she said.

Now in its 11th year, the marathon reading attracts famous poets like Martin Espada, longtime literature lovers, and even a few Whitman impersonators, Karbiener said.

“People love personalizing the reading — they dress up, or set the poem to music, or perform it in another language,” she said.

One regular at the readings is the spitting image of Whitman himself.

“A few years ago — by that I mean about 40 — I started appearing as Walt, and it was one of those things that just sort of evolved,” said Darrel Blaine Ford, a self-described Whitman “personator” who has spent decades cultivating Whitman’s mien and using the look to teach people about the bard.

But Karbiener said putting on a costume is not necessary to enjoy the poem that celebrates “the extraordinariness of ordinariness.”

And if a live performance of the 15,000-word magnum opus doesn’t leave you breathless, the views will.

“The location of Brooklyn Bridge Park is so perfect with the water there,” she said. “The amphitheater sort of tumbles down into the East River, and all the viewers get to see the sun set over the city.”

Failing to fetch the reading, keep encouraged — the celebration will be back next year, Karbiener said.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Granite Prospect (Old Fulton Street at Furman Street in Dumbo, www.brooklynbridgepark.org). June 8 from 4–6 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Whitmaniacs: Darrel Blaine Ford, left, and John Farrell, dressed for a previous year’s “Song of Myself” reading channel Walt Whitman in different eras of his life.
Photo by Karen Karbiener