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The first three in the American Poets' Corner

By / May 7, 1984

Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Washington Irving are the first writers to be honored in an American Poets' Corner similar in concept to the centuries-old Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey. The following essay on Whitman, with its reference to Dickinson, is published to coincide with this evening's formal dedication of the American Poets' Corner in the Arts Bay of New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. On the opposite page are the words of Irving presenting an early American view of the original Poets' Corner - which now loses its ''unique distinction,'' as the Dean of Westminster Abbey genially noted in expressing his delight over the American counterpart.

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The selection of Irving was made earlier to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 1783. The selection of Dickinson and Whitman was in the hands of a committee of electors (including such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Eudora Welty), as the future selection of two writers a year will be.

WHITMAN. Walt Whitman. There's poetry even in the upbeat, alliterative name. It is a romantic name, calling forth a personification of America's vigorous literary youth as a genial, self-styled sage with flowing white mane and felt sombrero who embraced everything, from moths to mountains, and - with a glorious , undiscriminating sweep of the pen - proclaimed all beautiful and great.

Along with Emily Dickinson, it was Whitman who ''broke the new wood'' of American verse. Most modern poets in English owe a debt to these two figures, whose literary breakthroughs brought poetry into the 20th century.

The two could not have been more unalike. Where Emily Dickinson stayed well concealed behind her Amherst curtains, Walt Whitman was schooled outdoors along the solitary seacoast of Long Island and among the faces and hubbub of his million-footed Manhattan. If Dickinson was intensely shy and uncertain about her work, Whitman was positively in love with his, and acted shamelessly as his own promoter.

Certainly there is a difference in their art. One almost senses, in the strange fire of Dickinson's spare, complex verse, that these were poems written while the poet was holding her breath. They are completely internalized. Whitman's gushy prose-poems, in contrast, are a kind of literary hyperventilation. Some are veritable catalogs of the exterior world. But that was Whitman. He was immersed in the fresh, democratic spirit of the New World, where all was abundance. The recent biographical exploration into the personal problems Whitman struggled with does not undercut the buoyancy of his craft. He saw, and wrote about:

The earth expanding right hand and

left hand,

The picture alive, every part in its

best light,

The music falling in where it is

wanted, and stopping where

it is not wanted,

The cheerful voice of the public

road . . .

At the center of it all was ''Leaves of Grass.'' This book of poems, his ''principal object - the main life work . . . ,'' was his treasure, the gold he would polish and expand upon from 1855, its first edition, to 1892, its ninth and final. It was as if, in this book, Whitman stepped into the vortex of all the unleashed forces of his land and day - the budding industrialism, the frontier spirit, the religious fervor, the transcendental debate, the reporting every day of vast new resources and wonders, the recognition of the uniqueness and importance of the American democratic experiment in world history - and anointed himself Poet.

And if there was a heart to ''Leaves of Grass,'' it had to be New York. ''Mannahatta! How fit a name for America's great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! how aboriginal!'' The city was Whitman's muse. Manhattan was to Whitman what Chicago would be to Sandburg - as the spirit swept across the country - and what San Francisco would be to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the Beats. The diversity and energy of New York captivated Whitman, and he spoke of ''the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on/ the walk in the street and the passage over the river.''

In ''Song of the Broad Axe'' he went further:

The place where a great city stands is

not the place of stretch'd

wharves, docks, manufactures,