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‘Happy Birthday Walt’: Shepherdstown celebrates Whitman’s 200th birthday with poetry, cake

By Staff | Jun 7, 2019

Shepherd University Professor of English Heidi Hanrahan reads the opening to Walt Whitman's poem, "Song of Myself," during Walt Whitman's 200th birthday celebration at James Rumsey Monument and Park on Friday afternoon. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — On May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York. And although two hundred years have passed since then, his legacy lives on, in the hearts and minds of poets and literature lovers alike.

On Friday, Shepherdstown’s poets and literature lovers gathered together for a poetry reading tour to commemorate Whitman’s legacy. Starting at James Rumsey Monument and Park, the tour led attendees on to McMurran Hall Lawn and Four Seasons Books, where attendees could indulge in wine and birthday cake together.

“Our plan for today is to share poetry at each spot, by Whitman or inspired by Whitman,” said event organizer and Shepherd University Professor of English Heidi Hanrahan. “I am not a creative writer, I am just an enthusiast, but I remember as a sophomore or junior reading Whitman for the first time and loving his poetry.”

Hanrahan, who was designated the 2019 West Virginia Professor of the Year by the Faculty Merit Foundation, has held similar events for her students and the Shepherdstown community in the past, but according to her, this event provided its own set of challenges.

“We’ve done one-sight poetry discussions at Four Seasons and around town before, but this is the firs time we’ve done a multiple sight event,” Hanrahan said, mentioning the inspiration for this event came from local writer and Four Seasons Books employee Katie Quinnelly.

About 20 people attended the 200th birthday celebration for Walt Whitman on Friday afternoon, which began with a poetry reading at James Rumsey Monument and Park. Tabitha Johnston

“It was Katie’s idea to highlight the different locations that would highlight different kinds of poetry,” Hanrahan said. “So here at James Rumsey Monument and Park, we focused on poetry about nature. At McMurran Hall, we’ll read Civil War poetry, because German Street was an important place in the Civil War. Four Seasons is a good place to relax and socialize, and just be surrounded by books.”

As about 20 attendees joined the poetry reading under the trees of the park, Hanrahan read an excerpt from Whitman’s poetry collection, “Leaves of Grass.” Shepherdstown Poet Laureate Ed Zahniser followed the reading an excerpt of his own, from an article in The Atlantic titled “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy.”

“I thought, given our current politics, it would be good to mention this,” Zahniser said about the piece.

As other readers read Whitman’s works, including Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” “Oh Me, Oh Life,” “Song of Myself” and “I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” For one of the readers, the event was an opportunity to share a poem he wrote, inspired by Whitman’s writing style.

“I wrote a poem after 9/11 called ‘Brass,’ and it’s based on the format of Walt Whitman,” said Tom Donlon, who was representing West Virginia Writer’s, Incorporated at the event. “It’s two pages long, but Whitman used a lot of words, so I fit right in!”

Along with poetry readings of Walt Whitman’s work or works inspired by Whitman, a birthday party, complete with cake, wine and party whistles, was held in honor of Walt Whitman at Four Seasons Books on Friday. Tabitha Johnston

As the first stage of the event came to a close, Hanrahan said she hoped event attendees would walk away with a renewed appreciation for Whitman’s poetry.

“I just think that Whitman was such an important voice in American literature, and such a timely voice,” Hanrahan said. “I hope people take away a new or renewed appreciation for Whitman and see ways that he is still relevant today. He’s a part of the common man, and he’s accessible, too. You don’t need a dictionary to read Whitman.”