Poet Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday is Friday, May 31, and there are several ways that locals might choose to celebrate.

Of course, they can pull a volume of Whitman off the shelf and turn to a poem they like, or flip through the pages until they discover a new favorite.

But rather than reading silently to themselves, people may want to participate in a marathon reading of “Leaves of Grass” that is being held at the Salem Athenaeum this Saturday.

The event is being organized by Sue Weaver Schopf, a Salem resident who said that Whitman’s poetry still has vital relevance today and shares a unique vision.

“His enthusiasm for the world around him, his enthusiasm for America, his enthusiasm for the melting-pot quality of this country with this vast geography and different landscapes to be celebrated — all that energy, that nobody in American poetry had attempted to capture,” she said.  

To get a sense of what Whitman was like in person, fans of the poet may also want to pick up a copy of “Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America,” which was edited by Haverhill native Brenda Wineapple and published in April by Library of America.

The book condenses nine volumes of conversations that the poet held over the last four years of his life with Horace Traubel, his neighbor in Camden, New Jersey, who recorded everything Whitman said in 5,000 pages of shorthand.

“Listening to his voice through the nine volumes, you felt (you were) inside of him, and how courageous he was, not just as a maverick poet and in his ability to take rejection, but in his willingness to keep on keeping on,” Wineapple said. 

She has written extensively about 19th-century literature and history, including recently about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and describes Whitman in her introduction as “a man far ahead of his time who insisted on being himself.”

“He had a vision, and was committed to that vision and never wavered from it,” Wineapple said. “That courage was what I saw him draw on as he grew more and more ill toward the end of his life, without the comfort of organized religion or any conventions.”

Schopf, who teaches at Harvard Extension School, organized a marathon reading of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” at the Athenaeum when she was teaching a course on that poem.

“It’s really almost like a religious experience, I have to say that,” Schopf said. “It’s not quite the same thing as reading in unison, which is part of religious services, but the fact that everybody is there together, hearing the music of verse,” makes a profound difference.

“By reading it, and not reading it aloud, you miss 50 percent,” she said. “Reading it aloud, people hear the music of the language, hear the way the lines are broken and reconnect. They hear the metaphors in a more vivid way.”

They will be using the 1855 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” the first, which contained 12 poems but no titles or numbered sections. 

It was considerably shorter than the final, “deathbed” edition from 1892 and didn’t suffer from any of Whitman’s later revisions.

Using the earlier text, Schopf thinks the reading should take between four and five hours, if there are no interruptions.

“We’re going to let all the people who want to come in and participate in the reading do so,” she said. “Typically, people will read 30 to 50 lines and that’s all they want to read, and move on to the next person sitting next to them.” 

Whitman often addressed his readers as if they were physically present, in poems such as “Whoever You Are, Holding Me Now in Hand” or “As Adam Early in the Morning.” 

By leaving out details of daily life that Traubel included in his transcriptions, Wineapple has tried to create that same sense of intimacy in her volume of Whitman’s “pronouncements.” 

“He was a warm and generous and committed and rather dear person, so that’s what I felt,” she said. “He was very good company.” 

“Walt Whitman Speaks” is organized into 35 topics, ranging from “Nature,” “The Human Heart,” “Self-Reliance” and “Sex” to “The Civil War” and “Spirituality.”

“I look ahead seeing for America a bad day — a dark if not stormy day — in which this policy, this restriction, this attempt to draw a line against free speech, free printing, free assembly, will become a weapon of menace to our future,” Whitman says in the “America” section.

He also has decisive things to say about immigration, which he saw as good for the country.

“Dare we deny them a home — close the doors in their face — take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system — convinced that we have solved our problem?” Whitman said. “I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure — such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.”

 

If you go 

What: “Leaves of Grass” marathon reading

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex St., Salem

How much: Free

More information: 978-744-2540 or www.salemathenaeum.net

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