On a small stage near the top of Janss Steps, a group of students, professors and alumni will recite all 54 pages of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
Participants will celebrate the poet’s 200th birthday alongside UCLA’s centennial anniversary Saturday. Event organizer Amber West, a lecturer for UCLA Writing Programs, said she hopes bystanders on campus will catch some of the reading event while attending Alumni Day events and waiting for the centennial launch. West said she hopes utilizing different voices to deliver each of the poem’s 52 sections will adequately reflect the social efforts of Whitman’s works. His writing was meant to exhibit the beauty and complexity of people’s perspectives and experiences, she said.
“In some ways, we’re trying to have the reading be the embodiment of the spirit of (Whitman’s) work,” West said. “He was so ahead of his time, not only stylistically, but in terms of content.”
West said her idea for a marathon reading stemmed from a similar event in Brooklyn Bridge Park while she was living in New York City. After moving to Los Angeles in 2016 to work at UCLA, West said she realized Whitman’s birthday bicentennial coincided with the university’s centennial and she put together a series of events called “Whitmania.” One of the first of these events was “Whitman Dreams in Color” on April 29, at which students from local universities screen-printed bookmarks and wrote poems on manual typewriters.
West said these events are meant to highlight Whitman’s legacy and idea of radical optimism, which is often misunderstood. The term “radical” is typically used as a political put-down, but the definition refers to the fundamental nature of something – the root of a given issue or concept, West said. Optimism is the sense of what is good and possible in all people, so Whitman’s concept is ultimately about organic connection between human beings, she said.
“When I think about UCLA, … when we are at our best … we are embodying that same kind of radical optimism,” West said. “He was always about those connections and the power of art and expression to help embody that.”
West said she often thinks Whitman’s poetry is resonant with a student populace. Much of his work is about grappling with oneself, she said, and with one’s relation to both the universe and one’s own community. She said these are questions that are particularly significant to college students who are trying to find themselves.
Associate English professor Michael Cohen said Whitman’s radical optimism beliefs are fixed in hope. When the first edition of Whitman’s poetry collection – which included “Song of Myself” – was first published in 1855, the United States was in a dark decade socially and politically, leading to the Civil War. Cohen said Whitman was intensely critical of slavery and inequality, and believed in democracy and lasting human relationships. The ideas of reinvention and authentic happiness were central to the first version of Whitman’s poem, Cohen said, and the marathon reading will be another chance for readers to discover the poet’s resounding message.
“That’s where I see the hope of the text,” Cohen said. “It’s written from a very dark moment, but it’s imagining possibility out of that moment for a much lighter time to come.”
The image of a hopeful future is part of what drew third-year English student Elias Fulmer to participate in the marathon reading, he said. Fulmer will be reading from the sixth section of “Song of Myself” during the event, which he said he finds appealing due to its messages of social equality. This section features a metaphorical conversation between the author and an imaginary child, during which Whitman represents the grass growing beneath their feet as symbolic of all the possibilities of the future. While the text was written during a time of terrific social upheaval, Fulmer said it was an ideal opportunity for discussion and debate as to what America’s values truly are.
“If you look through a big enough text, you’re going to find a line that supports what you think or how you feel,” Fulmer said. “There’s a lot you can take from ‘Song of Myself,’ or the other pieces.”
West has been orienting several of her general education writing classes around Whitman, and said doing so was the primary way she was able to get students involved in learning about the American poet. She said she has been pleased with how much her students have immersed themselves in the work and she is hoping to involve more people in honoring Whitman’s legacy through the poetry reading.
“I think once we had that context, people really got into it and it was exciting to see students understand the significance of his work, but also be able to question it,” West said.