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Essay: Walt Whitman inspires my own life’s song

Poet Walt Whitman, circa 1869. His 200th birthday

Poet Walt Whitman, circa 1869. His 200th birthday is on May 31, 2019. Credit: Library of Congress / The Long Island Museum

Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday arrives on Friday, and boy, could we all stand to listen to him again.

America in 2019 seems just as angry, frightened, and divided as in the 1850s, when he introduced the nation to his famous poem “Song of Myself.”

Walt knew all about our shared humanity, regardless of what we look like or where we’ve come from. He would have cringed at the idea of building walls to keep the “other” out.

I can still remember the moment I met the poet. It was November 1966. I was 16, a junior at Sewanhaka High School, and not the least bit interested in poetry.

Back then, poetry seemed dreary. With its almost nonstop talk of sorrow and death, of despair and disappointment, of folks wasting away in graveyards, it said nothing to a teenager eager to grab life by the lapels. But my feelings changed when my English teacher assigned a selection from “Song of Myself.”

The poem began with a bold assertion: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” a proclamation of the author’s being. It told of his plans to “lean and loafe,” to observe “a spear of summer grass,” and (my favorite line) to “go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked.”

I’d never heard a poet say things like this — and in words I didn’t have to struggle to grasp. If I needed any more proof that “Song of Myself” was different, it came a few lines later: “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,” Whitman wrote. “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”

Could there have been anything more liberating and inspiring? Could there have been a clearer invitation to experience life on my own terms — dancing, laughing and singing (as the poem advised) along the way?

From that day on, Whitman was my guy.

Learning that Walt — we were now on a first-name basis — was a Long Islander, I found my way to his birthplace, just off Route 110 in West Hills in Huntington. I could feel his presence in the home’s modest furnishings and its bucolic setting.

I felt it again that afternoon when I climbed nearby Jayne’s Hill, hoping he’d pop out of the woods so we could celebrate being alive together.

I’ve been learning about Walt ever since, visiting the office of the Long Islander, the Huntington newspaper he founded in 1838. (Still printing!)

I’ve read about his years in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where he sounded off about politics, created a stir with frank and joyous poems, and chilled with kindred spirits at Pfaff’s saloon (closed long ago) in Greenwich Village.

In Washington, D.C., I’ve read lines from Walt’s “Drum-Taps” poems that adorn Dupont Circle station, reminding travelers of his work comforting wounded soldiers in Civil War hospitals that once stood nearby. And I’ve visited the modest home in Camden, N.J., where he lived near the end of his life and where the writers Bram Stoker, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oscar Wilde and others came to acknowledge the man who reinvented poetry.

Walt’s massive volumes of verse never fail to renew my appreciation for poetry — his and others’. And I try to share his spirit while teaching literature at Nassau Community and Molloy colleges.

For Walt, people in all their complexity and diversity were what made America truly great.

“Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,” he wrote. And maybe speaking for our country as a whole: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

You rock, Walt. Happy birthday.

Reader Richard J. Conway lives in Massapequa.