Camden, NJ—Almost 200 years after the world famous poet Walt Whitman's last birthday, loyal followers, poets and fans gathered at the same house in the City of Camden where the poet spent the last 19 years of his life, to not only celebrate his life, but to celebrate young poets inspired by his work.
The annual Walt Whitman Birthday Party was held Wednesday night, on a cool May evening — the opposite of the "insufferably hot and sultry evening" of Whitman's last birthday party, according to an account read by Walt Whitman Association President David Stedman.
Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, and died in Camden in March of 1892. Stedman recounted how Whitman would sometimes celebrate his birthday at the Philadelphia restaurant Reiser's, on Chestnut Street, until his friends took to celebrating his birthday at his home and garden on Mickle Boulevard [now Martin Luther King Boulevard] due to his failing health. Whitman celebrated his last birthday on May 31, 1891, at a dinner party that 36 people attended "within the confines of Walt's little house," said Stedman.
On Wednesday night, Whitman even made an appearance himself — well, sort of. Darrel Ford, a Whitman impersonator, read a verse from the poem "Song of Myself" from Whitman's seminal book, "Leaves of Grass."
The Walt Whitman Association has celebrated Whitman's birthday annually since the poet's lifetime, according to Stedman. In addition to the birthday celebration, the winners of the association's High School Poetry Contest are also honored.
"We feel Walt would especially appreciate the efforts of our young poets," said Stedman.
This year's contest theme was "Looking to the Future," something Mayor Frank Moran, who was the event's guest speaker, said was "quite appropriate."
"As we look back at Whitman's time in Camden, the city was in the midst of the industrial revolution. All of which was supported by surges in population and waves of immigrants that came to the U.S. and Camden for employment. Now fast forward 140 years, Camden is once again experiencing tremendous growth and revitalization," said Moran.
He added that it was "critical" for the City of Camden to work with state and federal agencies to preserve historical landmarks like the Whitman House, or Harleigh Cemetery, where the poet is buried.
"It's critical that we promote these locations as regional and global destinations for both residents and visitors, similar to what is in Philadelphia," said the mayor.
Gretel DeRuiter, chair of the poetry contest, cited Whitman's poem, "Poets to Come," as one of the many works of his that speaks directly to those who would live after him.
"He strived to connect to other generations by focusing on our shared humanity; and he also saw a promising future in the democracy and the diversity in the United States of America," said DeRuiter. "In introducing the theme of this year’s poetry contest, which was 'Looking to the Future,' we invited students to look forward imagining a future that may pertain to themselves, their communities, the nation or to humanity as a whole."
Six area-high school students were awarded prizes for their work. Alexis Szkotak and Julie Munafo, both of Haddonfield Memorial High School, received honorable mention; Emma Hodges, of Haddonfield Memorial High School, received fourth place; Ilan Arougheti, of Cherry Hill High School East, received third place; Rachel Agosto-Ginsburg, of Cherry Hill High School East, received second place; and the Bernadette M. Stridick First Place Prize winner was Cherry Hill High School West senior Joseph Tozzi.