I'm Heather Kamins for About.com, and I'm here to talk to you about Walt Whitman.Walt Whitman was one of the key poets of the 19th century, and one of the most important and influential American poets ever. Though his work was considered highly controversial and even profanely by his contemporaries - largely due to his explorations of sexuality - this same emphasis has kept him a favorite among readers into the present day.Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819, the second of nine children. He was a jack of many trades. Whitman was a teacher, a printer's apprentice, a clerk, a Civil War nurse, and even founded his own newspaper for a short time. A visit to New Orleans established his fierce opposition to slavery, which would influence both his life - he was a supporter of a splinter faction of the Democratic party - and his literary work as well.Walt Whitman had developed a love of poetry as a youth, exploring museums and libraries. In the 1840s, he began writing both poetry and fiction as a vocation. His early work was aimed towards popular and traditional tastes, but his work quickly evolved.The most early form of his enduring collection Leaves of Grass took shape around 1850. Leaves of Grass revealed Whitman's poetic style. He began to write in a distinctive, energetic free verse, borrowed from Biblical rhythms. His subject matter also came into focus, reflecting on overt sexuality - perhaps touching on his own, nebulous sexual nature. He also explored themes on spirituality and the human connection with nature. Whitman took the unusual step of self-publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass, printing 795 copies of the inaugural 12-poem collection. This first edition featured what would later be entitled "Song of Myself," one of his most enduring poems.Critical response was mixed, mainly due to its frank, sexual nature. Even members of Whitman's own family thought it a worthless endeavor. However, the collection had its defenders. Ralph Waldo Emerson became a great champion of the work, encouraging Whitman and recommending the book in public. Bram Stoker counted Whitman as a hero, and some claim Whitman was the inspiration for his character Dracula.Leaves of Grass consumed Whitman until almost his dying day. He added to the volume throughout his life, and his so-called "Deathbed Edition" saw a final count of 383 poems, including what may be his most famous poem, "I Sing the Body Electric."Whitman died in 1892 of pneumonia, a complication from a debilitating stroke in 1873. He left behind a massively popular body of work, and was such a recognized figure that his funeral became a notable public event. He is an influence on such modern poets as Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.Here's the beginning of "Song of Myself," a long poem in 52 sections:I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.Thanks for watching. To learn more, visit us on the web at About.com.