Perhaps the greatest American poet ever to have lived, Walt Whitman was not always regarded as such. Thanks, in part, to the emergence of modernist forms in poetry toward the end of the 19th century, Whitman’s work did not attract critical attention until after his death in 1892. But for Jewish immigrant poets living in New York City at the turn of the century, Whitman was an iconic figure — a poet and even a prophet. Morris Rosenfeld, the famous Yiddish poet, wrote an ode to Whitman shortly after his death, which concludes, “Prophet, immortal, I praise you / I fall now into the dust before your dust and sing!” And the legendary Yiddish writer Avrom Reyzn, in a study delineating Whitman’s influence on Yiddish poets, called him the “Prophet of New America.”
Indeed, many Jewish poets drew inspiration from and were influenced by Whitman, and quite a few took to translating his work into Yiddish. These translations will soon be made available through the Walt Whitman Archive, as part of a project whose goal is to give readers access to translations of Whitman that have long been out of print. Matt Miller, assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and senior assistant editor at the Archive, is working with student Shoshana Singer to put Yiddish translations of Whitman on the Archive’s website. A book-length translation of Whitman’s works by Yiddish novelist and poet Louis Miller is scheduled for release this summer.
Interest in Whitman among Yiddish poets, Miller said, can be ascribed to the American poet’s celebration of the ordinary working man and of those on the margins of society. Through his poetry, Miller said, “Whitman invites everyone to feel as essential parts of the American experience… regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds.” In addition, Whitman’s formal approach — long, unrhymed lines — echoes that of the Hebrew prophets, another possible point of appeal for Yiddish poets.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.