Our Town: Walt Whitman: Long Island’s local poet

Our  Town: Walt Whitman: Long Island’s local poet
Walt Whitman showed us how to find meaning and joy in a blade of grass. (photo by Tom Ferraro)

If you’ve not read “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, its time you get yourself to the local library, check out the book and get ready to learn about the secret to living a happy life. Similar to the last act in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Whitman’s epic 120 page poem provides you with a pathway to finding  that elusive thing called happiness.

Walt Whitman was born in Huntington in 1819 and was raised in Brooklyn. Although he left formal education by the age of 11, he worked his entire life as a journalist, editor, teacher and poet. He is now known as one of the most influential American poets and father of free verse. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, he led the transcendentalist movement which was a philosophy  espousing the goodness of man and nature and that meaning could be found not in books but rather in the smallest of things such as the sound of the wind, the look of a rock or a leaf of grass.  In this way his work reminds me of both Herman Hesse as well as Marcel Proust in the way he is able to find meaning in the slightest of things.

Whitman is thought to be an equal to Alexis de Tocqueville in defining the American character. Whitman  thought of the English language as the dialect of common sense, and the chosen language to express growth, self-esteem, freedom, equality, friendliness, decisiveness and courage.

He was forever a wanderer and rambler and a keen observer of men and women. It may no long be possible to produce a Walt Whitman since we now live in fast times with fast cars and fast computers. We now  speed past things that the rambling poet Walt Whitman sauntered by and observed. He watched firefighters work a fire, policemen enter a crowd to settle it down, sea captains sail a ship and mothers cook a meal.  And he considered these common ordinary craftsmen and women to be comparable to Greek gods or presidents.

One of his unique traits as a poet  is the way he credited the observer with knowledge which then imbued the observed  thing itself with meaning. “All architecture is what YOU DO TO IT when you look upon it; did you think it was the white and grey stones? Or the lines of the arches and cornices?”


At one point in this epic poem he  says “The old forever new things….you foolish child!…. the closest simplest things—this moment with you” and goes on to list over six hundred such close and simple things like learning spelling, reading, writing, the blackboard, the teacher’s diagrams,   panes of glass, the routine of the workshop, factory yard, office, store or desk, manufactures, commerce, engineering, the building of cities, the implements of every trade  and on and on, over six hundred of these ‘close and simple things’.

The result of this kind of poetic mastery is that one is eventually brought into connection with the whole world and all that it contains. His work has an impact similar to James Joyce who was able to look at Dublin and describe it in such amazing detail. The rambling wanderer, Walt Whitman has managed to do this with America and it is our good fortune that we have this 19th century American genius to read and therefore remind us of what it is to be an American.

So if you have not seen his birthplace and the museum that is attached to it out in Huntington, I recommend you do so. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, unless that is to buy “Leaves of Grass” and spend the weekend reading it from beginning to end. Walt Whitman is proof that one does not need to await the eclipse in order to enjoy nature.   It can be found in every blade of grass  in every front yard.

Dr. Tom Ferraro

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here