Poetry students take a walk in Walt Whitman's footprints

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

In "Calamus 3" he writes:

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

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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.

In addition, she calls Karbiener, who is only a few years older than her students, "a great role model" who has piqued her interest in an academic career.

Strong reviews of Karbiener's teaching style posted on the Internet by the Columbia students who took the course last year lured several of this year's students into the class. But others say it was a fascination with the city that drew them in, or the rare opportunity to understand poetry in a physical context.

The class is a diverse group, including Columbia and Barnard undergraduates, older "nontraditional" students, some master's candidates, and an Italian, an Austrian, and a couple of students from the Caribbean. It's a grouping Whitman would have delighted in, suggests Karbiener, citing his exaltation of the array of immigrants in the New York that he loved.

One of Karbiener's favorite class sessions is a trip to Brooklyn Heights where Whitman once lived. There, the class visits Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, built in 1850, where Whitman heard the impassioned Henry Ward Beecher preach against slavery. A church historian gives the class a brief lecture, immersing them for a moment in the Brooklyn of that era, trying to make them understand the ferocity of the debate that was about to tear the country apart.

Whitman lived in troubled times, Karbiener reminds the class, and yet remained a voice of optimism. In many ways, she suggests, he is the ideal poet to be reading at a moment when the nation again feels threatened.

The Brooklyn tour continues on to the building where Whitman worked until he was fired (some say for poor work habits, while others suggest it was his radical political views that cost him his job).

Then, after a quick stop for ice cream and some recitations of Whitman's verse in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the class walks over the bridge itself, stopping partway over to read aloud "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The bridge spans the route the ferry used to travel, and a couple of the students say later that they felt a thrill listening to Whitman address them so directly:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation,

or even so many generations hence....

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky,

so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a crowd, I was

one of a crowd,

Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the

bright flow, I was refresh'd,

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the

swift current, I stood yet was hurried....

I too many and many a time cross'd the river of old.

Karbiener is unabashed about her enthusiasm for the poem itself. "He wrote a poem about a commute that became one of the most beautiful poems in the English language," she tells her students as they ring around her on the pedestrian track of the bridge.

"I don't know about you," she tells them as she squints a bit into the late afternoon sun. "But this is the kind of stuff that makes me do what I'm doing."

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