Unsettling Walt Whitman


The disturbing poem that follows is based on troubling and little-discussed reports about the younger Walt Whitman, when the great poet was a twenty-something school teacher at Southold, Long Island.

The poem, “A Reading of Whitman,” by poet and Whitman scholar William Heyen (who attended Smithtown High School, where Whitman also taught), will appear in Yawp: Heyen on Whitman, a collection of poems and essays to be published on May 31st, 2019, the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth. First published here at Dispatches, this poem opens the book.

The bicentennial celebrations of Whitman are sure to bring forth a wave of tribute and praise for our national poet. We don’t think it’s an exaggeration to propose, not least because of the recent national reckoning around sexual abuse of all kinds, that the poem may well turn out to be the most controversial piece about Whitman published during the anniversary celebrations.

“A Reading of Whitman” is disturbing because it unsettles, in somewhat shocking ways, the widely shared image of Whitman as a gentle, even saintly sage, incapable of visiting violence or harm on fellow human beings. Do not read it if you have a comfortable image of Whitman and don’t wish it to be shaken.

Also relevant are Katherine Molinoff’s pamphet, Whitman in Southold, and Dispatch’s commentary, The Disturbing Case of Whitman at Southold, Long Island. In December, we will preview William Heyen’s introduction to Yawp. For now, and with thanks to Mr. Heyen for asking us to release it, we offer the poem.



William Heyen poem