You’ve heard of them. You think you love or hate them. But do you know them?
Even for someone like me who rejects the idea that transcendent creative genius emerges mysteriously and in isolation, it’s hard to account for the experimental, powerful, and unique voices that emerged from these two poets, who are arguably the basis of all American poetry to come. Whitman and Dickinson are often cast in binaries: masculine vs. feminine; epic vs. lyric; brash and publicity-seeking vs. shy and reclusive; political vs. private. These contrasts apply even in their images: he is one of the most photographed people of the 19th century and she avoided the camera, leaving only two known likenesses; he worked in print, typesetting his own manuscripts, and she left thousands of hand-written works, from bound fascicles to lines scrawled on bits of envelope.
But like most binaries, these are fraught and finally unsatisfying. For both poets also explored the natural world, the relationship between the human and divine, the nature of death, alternative sexualities, violence and grief, and their own roles as poets in a nation painfully forging its own identity. Individually and together, what can these great minds tell us about their world and our own, about the self and about others? Let’s go.