Poetry & Lyrics festival: Walt Whitman and Song


Pianist Iain Burnside came to the Poetry & Lyrics festival to explore settings of the poems of American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), accompanied by tenor Nicky Spence, in an event hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucie Skeaping. Ivor Gurney was again represented here with other settings of Whitman’s poems by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Craig Urquhart, Kurt Weill and Frank Bridge.

In a brief discussion providing an interlude to the programme, Walt Whitman was revealed to be a surprisingly modern figure for a near contemporary of Queen Victoria. Controversial in his day because of his open views on sexuality, Whitman was an intensely physical, working class figure who captured the pioneering spirit of a young America and who was ahead of his time in other ways, with his love of nature presaging later movements to protect the American landscape. He loved Italian opera and bel canto but was keen to see the emergence of American song as the country forged its new identity. His open views on sex and sexuality expressed in his major work Leaves of Grass (1855) cost him his job in the Department of the Interior, but by the mid twentieth century he had become something of a gay icon for the Beat poets. He experienced the American Civil War at first hand in his time in Washington D.C., volunteering to heal wounded soldiers, and his work Drum Taps, which came out in 1865, reflected this experience and this would have resonated with later war poets like Ivor Gurney. Nicky Spence referred to him as ‘a real mensch’ – someone who drew attention to himself and his own enjoyment of his physicality in a way that would have been shocking to the Victorians but more easily received by poets like Rossetti and Swinburne and many poets who followed them in the twentieth century. Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ should be familiar to fans of the 1989 Peter Weir film ‘Dead Poets Society’.

If the titles of Whitman’s individual poems are less familiar to us, Leaves of Grass, a volume that was expanded through several editions in Whitman’s lifetime, is still well known and Lucie Skeaping pointed out that over 500 songs have been based on Whitman’s poems. It is fitting then that Walt Whitman had a platform at the Poetry & Lyrics Festival through an uplifting performance by musicians Iain Burnside and Nicky Spence.


by John Dixon

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