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Summer Course Explores New York City through Walt Whitman's Eyes and Poems

By Jo Kadlecek

Karen Karbiener (far left) with her class of Whitman students last summer.

No one can accuse poetry instructor Karen Karbiener of lacking passion. While she was finishing her doctoral studies in English, Karbiener (GSAS '01) loved discussing the "great books" with her students of "Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy," part of Columbia's core curriculum. That same enthusiasm earned her a teaching position at Colby College in Maine this past year, and there, Karbiener took her excitement to the air waves in a weekly two hour radio show called "The West End" on WMHB, central Maine's only alternative radio station. The popular show included the "Sock Puppet Poetry Reading Series," which encouraged students and staff to make public their love of poetry.

But it is the summer course she teaches at Columbia that has really captured Karbiener's heart. Because she grew up in Brooklyn and Queens the daughter of German immigrants, Karbiener looks forward to coming home to teach her class, "Whitman and New York" offered Monday and Wednesday afternoons from July 8 to August 16. It will be the second time the course is being offered and Karbiener hopes to teach it for many summers to come.

"Whitman was inspired by the city's everyday reality as he rode the ferries and omnibuses and walked up Broadway," Karbiener says. "The same sights and sounds that still frighten or disgust tourists are still oddly cherished by New Yorkers like me. Walt was the first one of us to express his love."

Born in part out of a chapter of her dissertation entitled "British Romanticism and the Americanization of Walt Whitman," the three-point comparative literature class was designed by Karbiener as a way of helping students understand the relationship between New York in the 1840s and 50s and its first major poet. Not only does Karbiener introduce students to Whitman's early poetry, journalism, and short fiction, she does so by simultaneously exploring the development of the city, its influence on Whitman's work, and even a few of his contemporaries, like city resident Edgar Allen Poe and frequent visitor Charles Dickens.

"So much of the New York that Whitman knew is still standing," says Karbiener, who leads her class through areas of the city that would have been familiar to the poet. "This is a very hands on class, very centered on and in the city."

In addition to using texts like Henry Christman's "Walt Whitman's New York," Philip Lopate's anthology, "Writing New York" and, of course, Whitman's selected works, including his most famous, "Leaves of Grass," Karbiener takes her students to Brooklyn Heights where Whitman grew up. After a literary tour of his old neighborhood, the class walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and stops half-way for a poetry reading over the East River, paying tribute to the river Whitman ferried across each day to work in Manhattan. Next, they tour historic lower Manhattan and ride the Staten Island Ferry, all in an effort, Karbiener says, to "capture the spirit of where Whitman was."

"When we read a line by Whitman that detailed the feel of the water droplets on his face as he rode the Staten Island Ferry," says Vicky Poumpouridis (CC '03) who took the class last summer, "we knew exactly what he had been feeling, because we were reading the poem while riding the ferry ourselves. When we read extensively about the feel of the cobblestones embedded in the ground, we knew about that, too, because we had toured Brooklyn Heights and walked across a preserved street that was still lined with cobblestones."

A third trip takes the class to the South Street Seaport and a visit to Bowne and Company Print Shop where every member of the class works on the type of letterpress Whitman would have used. Karbiener also introduces students to Langston Hughes' Harlem and the Beat poets at Columbia, all of whom were directly influenced by Whitman's work. Students are expected to memorize 10 lines of any Whitman poem and recite them during one of their outings during the term.

"I came away from the class with a sense that I had seen the same city, encountered the same sights, heard the same sounds, that Whitman himself had as he wrote line after line," says Poumpouridis. "His words simply came off the page. All this, thanks to Karen and her ability to breathe life into words on a page."

Last summer's inaugural class, which included 18 students from countries such as Australia, Brazil, and Japan, and academic institutions like Columbia, Barnard, Vassar and Union Theological Seminary, developed such a bond that many kept in touch throughout the year. They even reunited this spring to celebrate Whitman's 183rd birthday at The West End restaurant. Their enthusiasm might be why enrollment for this summer's offering of "Whitman and New York" has a dozen more students than last year's.

"The class was like a team or members of a crew trying to find out the treasure on the island of New York City," according to visiting student Noriko Nonokya. "It was my first English class and first class at Columbia and I am glad that I took it. I came to love the City and Columbia for offering this kind of class. It had a marvelous combination of the academic and free spirit."

Considering the response of students like Nonokya and Poumpouridis, Karbiener is eager to teach the class again this summer, though she has plenty of other projects to work on. Her dissertation chapter on Whitman will be included in a collection of essays entitled "Wordsworth's American Century, 1802-1902" to be published later this year. In 2003, her own edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" will be published. And a long-term project she is particularly enthusiastic about, "The Encyclopedia of American Counterculture," will be published by M.E. Sharpe in 2004. As the project's general editor and creative visionary, she hopes that the two-volume catalogue of people, movements, and events will establish a "tradition" of American radicalism that runs more deeply and consistently through our culture than is conventionally supposed.

But for the next few months, Karbiener is right where she wants to be doing what she loves.

"Whitman captured a timeless New York spirit in his poetry that I really feel, and that I hope to communicate to my students," she says, quoting with equal fervor from his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

"What is it then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not-distance avails not, and place avails not.
I too lived,
I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island,
and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questions
stir within me . . ."

Published: Jul 08, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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