My stomach was churning furiously. The Press Club of Long Island’s first-ever poetry reading on Aug. 23 was to begin in a half-hour at the Huntington Station birthplace of the unparalleled poet and journalist Walt Whitman. Would anyone show? I wondered.
If they did, I’d have to read my poetry in public — for the first time since high school 33 years ago. Yikes!
Within minutes, the poets and journalist-poets started to arrive, until the room filled with 15 people — so, yes, I had to read.
The two-story, wood-shingle farmhouse where Whitman was born is now a State Historic Site, run by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. Whitman’s father, Walter Whitman Sr., built it and settled his family there sometime between 1816 and 1819.
Walt Whitman was born in 1819. The WWBA is planning a series of celebrations next year in honor of the bicentennial of his birth. The birthplace has an interpretive center, with displays of photos and writings cataloging Whitman’s amazing life, along with an expansive room with a semicircle of wooden benches, which hosts poetry readings and lectures. A wall of wide windows looks out on a grassy courtyard and the farmhouse.
Around the time that President Trump was elected, I started writing poetry again, after a more than two-decade hiatus. I run four or five days a week at a nature preserve down the street from my Merrick home. The poems — all nonpolitical — just came to me as I trod along its seashell-coated paths. Poetry was a way for me to take back the beauty and majesty of the English language.
We can all — Democrat, Republican, Independent — agree that the 2016 presidential election was ugly. Debates were not debates. They were bitterly venomous verbal slugfests, the likes of which I had never seen in my lifetime, and as a journalist for a quarter-century, I’ve seen many, many nasty campaigns.
Shortly before I became PCLI’s president in June, I came up with the seemingly crazy idea that a journalism association should hold a poetry reading. Such an event, I thought, might restore a modicum of normalcy to our national dialogue.
Mission accomplished. For an article on the poetry reading, published on www.PCLI.org, I said this: “It was wonderful to hear the English language elevated to such a high level, particularly given all the anger, derision and simplicity of our national discourse these days.”
Before the reading, I researched Whitman’s life. If I was going to host a reading in his honor, at his home, I thought, I should know more about him. I discovered the Walt Whitman Archive, directed by Kenneth Price, of the University of Nebraska, and Ed Folsom, of the University of Iowa, both scholars of the “good gray poet.” Found at www.whitmanarchive.org, it is a treasure trove of his works, including many of his newspaper articles, which appeared in publications like the Hempstead Inquirer and the Long-Island Democrat, which are long since defunct.
Here’s Whitman describing the frenetic pace of life in an unsigned column for the Democrat:
“We are continually on the move. We may sometimes flatter ourselves in the idea of making a comfortable stop, with time enough to eat our dinner and lounge about a little, but the bell rings, the steam puffs, the horn blows, the waiters run about half mad. Every thing is hurry-scurry for a moment, and whizz! We are off again.”
Whitman, I learned, published travelogues on Long Island for New York City newspapers. From “Letters from a Travelling Bachelor,” published in the New York Sunday Dispatch from 1849 to 1850:
“At its easternmost part, Long Island opens like the upper and under jaws of some prodigious alligator . . . The bay that lies in here, and part of which forms the splendid harbor of Greenport, where the Long Island [Rail Road] ends, is called Peconic Bay; and a beautiful and varied water is it, fertile in fish and feathered game.”
On Long Island’s end point, he wrote:
"Montauk Point! how few Americans there are who have not heard of thee — although there are equally few who have seen thee with their bodily eyes, or trodden on thy green-sward. Most people possess an idea … that Montauk Point is a low stretch of land, poking its barren nose out toward the east, and hailing the sea-wearied mariner, as he approacheth our republican shores, with a sort of dry and sterile countenance. Not so is the fact. To its very extremest verge, Montauk is fertile and verdant.”
We are fortunate that Whitman lived and worked here on Long Island. To learn more about his birthplace, go to www.waltwhitman.org.
The reading was a fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists, in honor of the five Capital Gazette staffers killed in a mass shooting in June. For more on this nonprofit organization, or to donate to it, go to www.CPJ.org. For more on the reading, including sample poems, check out bit.ly/2My1rqJ.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.