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Poetry students take a walk in Walt Whitman's footprints

A church, a ferry, and a bridge become classrooms for this Columbia course

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2002



NEW YORK

There is something about the poetry of Walt Whitman, says Karen Karbiener, that simply defies a classroom. If you doubt her on this, she suggests, just check with the poet himself.

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In "Calamus 3" he writes:

(For in any roofed room of a house I emerge not – nor in company,

And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead),

But just possibly with you on a high hill – first watching lest any

person, for miles around, approach unawares,

Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea, or some

quiet island....

Manhattan may not exactly qualify as a "quiet island," nor Brooklyn Heights as a "high hill," but for Professor Karbiener, they are exactly the settings in which Whitman can best be approached. That's why the class she's teaching at Columbia University this summer – called "Whitman and New York" – uses the city as a classroom.

During the rest of the year Karbiener is an assistant visiting professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. But for the past two summers she has returned home – she's both a native Brooklynite and a Columbia graduate – to offer this special course which, she says, "I really can't teach anywhere but here in New York."

Her blond ponytail quivers with energy the moment she begins to discuss either Whitman or the New York he celebrated in his poetry. In many ways, she points out, the two cannot be separated. Like the city itself, Whitman had both a profoundly spiritual dimension and a distinctly gritty side.

He embraced all of New York, Karbiener says. "He was fascinated with the dirty and the clean."

In the six-week course, she asks her students to delve not only into the works of Whitman but into the city itself. On Mondays, they hold a traditional class on the Columbia campus. On Wednesdays, they roam the city.

They tour the narrow streets of Brooklyn Heights, span the Brooklyn Bridge, ferry across the East River, and set type at a South Street Seaport print shop – activities that help them grasp in a three-dimensional fashion the world in which Whitman lived and worked.

And as they tour, they occasionally stop and read aloud from Whitman's poetry.

Deborah Wilson, an English major and junior at Columbia, and Millee Singh, a junior and biology major at the affiliated Barnard College, are quick to admit they signed up for the class only to fulfill requirements. But now that they're immersed in both Whitman and the city that surrounds them, they are full of enthusiasm.

"We love this class," says Ms. Wilson.

"I never had read much poetry, but this is so interesting," says Ms. Singh. The atmosphere is open, she explains, the discussions are lively, and the depth of Karbiener's knowledge is remarkable. "She just knows everything about Whitman."

Besides, they both ask, what could be better than a chance to spend summer afternoons exploring New York City?

Teddy Angelos, another Columbia junior and English major, says she actually arranged her summer around this course. "New York and Whitman are my two great loves," she says. There was no way she could imagine missing this opportunity.

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