By Jon Bishop
HARVARD — Walt Whitman, in his “O Me! O Life!” reminds us that the powerful play of life goes on and we all will contribute a verse.
Stephen Collins certainly did –especially since he performs as Whitman.
He brought “Unlaunch’d Voices, an evening with Walt Whitman,” his one-man show, to the Hildreth House March 4, where , speaking as the poet, he told the audience that today there was a celebration in honor of his 70th year.
And so it was an occasion for reflection.
As Whitman, Collins discussed “Leaves of Grass,” his masterpiece, and the icy reception it initially received from critics. Some reviews praised the collection, and they were Whitman’s. He published them anonymously.
He also mentioned the great figures he knew: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde, for instance.
Throughout the show, which came from a script by Michael Z. Keamy, Collins peppered in bits of Whitman’s poetry, like this famous line: “Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!” And this, which Whitman said of how a poet should operate: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
He talked about the fact that Whitman received such an cold reception because he spoke frankly about the human body and about sex, and he also wrote in free verse.
And then there was the Civil War.
“It was the war that really made me pray,” said “Whitman.”
His brother, George, was “quick and eager to enlist,” and during the war, Walt cared for the sick and the injured.
“The real war will never get in the books,” he said. There will only be summaries. There will not be a sense of the suffering and the dead, many of whom will be lost to the tides of history, he said.
Unlike Whitman, Collins, who stayed engaged and in character throughout the hour-long performance, earned rave reviews. This was his first time at Hildreth House.
“I thought it was superb,” said Helen O’Donnell. “So interesting to hear him speaking his poems.”
Bob Storme, a former actor, said he was “more interested in his presentation,” especially since he had never done a one-man show.
“His voice is commanding,” he said. “It really is.”
He added that the show was “most enjoyable.”
Debbie Thompson, director of the Harvard Council on Aging, said that she was “very excited about (the performance) today.”
“He was great,” she said.
Collins, who is from Boxboro, makes a living as a performer and teacher. In addition to Whitman, he has one-man shows on Robert Frost and Socrates. He teaches courses on Edna St. Vincent Millay and Shakespeare.
His website is http://www.unlaunchedvoices.com/.
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