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. The famous American Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld 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.”
Elizabeth Rich as Rosalind Franklin in ‘Photograph 51.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.
To an American reader, accustomed to individualistic poetry of Walt Whitman or the confessional writings of Silvia Plath, the recently published collection of Israeli poet Rivka Miriam, “These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam” (Toby Press) may seem like a deliberate insult.
In “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman transformed his life into a poetic portrait of America and all its vastness, diversity, and tension. More than 150 years later, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson does something similar in his “Leaves of Grass,” a film that draws on his native Oklahoma, his college days at Brown, and his Jewish heritage.