During one part of New York Sea Grant's 40th anniversary celebration at the Long Island Maritime Museum on Great South Bay in September 2011, the approximately 100 people on hand were treated to the poetic stylings of George Wallace. Suffolk County’s first Poet Laureate demonstrated the relevance of famed poet Walt Whitman by reciting Whitman’s "Poems of Joy" about life along the sea.
Said Wallace, poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, "A mid-19th century Long Island native, Whitman had intimate knowledge of working people like fishermen. He gives voice to them so beautifully."
Walt Whitman POEM OF JOYS
O to have been brought up on bays, lagoons, creeks, or along the coast!
O to continue and be employ’d there all my life!
O the briny and damp smell—the shore—the salt weeds exposed at low water,
The work of fishermen—the work of the eel-fisher and clam-fisher.
O it is I!
I come with my clam-rake and spade! I come with my eel-spear;
Is the tide out? I join the group of clam-diggers on the flats,
I laugh and work with them—I joke at my work, like a mettlesome young man.
In winter I take my eel-basket and eel-spear and travel out on foot on the ice—I have a small axe to cut holes in the ice;
Behold me, well-clothed, going gaily, or returning in the afternoon—my brood of tough boys accompanying me,
My brood of grown and part-grown boys, who love to be with no one else so well as they love to be with me,
By day to work with me, and by night to sleep with me.
Or, another time, in warm weather, out in a boat, to lift the lobster-pots, where they are sunk with heavy stones, (I know the buoys;)
O the sweetness of the Fifth-month morning upon the water, as I row, just before sunrise, toward the buoys;
I pull the wicker pots up slantingly—the dark-green lobsters are desperate with their claws, as I take them out—I insert wooden pegs in the joints of their pincers,
I go to all the places, one after another, and then row back to the shore,
There, in a huge kettle of boiling water, the lobsters shall be boil’d till their color becomes scarlet.
Or, another time, mackerel-taking,
Voracious, mad for the hook, near the surface, they seem to fill the water for miles:
Or, another time, fishing for rock-fish, in Chesapeake Bay—I one of the brown-faced crew:
Or, another time, trailing for blue-fish off Paumanok, I stand with braced body,
My left foot is on the gunwale—my right arm throws the coils of slender rope,
In sight around me the quick veering and darting of fifty skiffs, my companions.
George Wallace, first Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, read Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Joys” at the New York Sea Grant 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Long Island Maritime Museum on September 9, 2011. Wallace, the 2011-2012 poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, also teaches writing at Pace University. In this essay, America's Coastline: Whitman's Sacred Place, Wallace analyzes several of Whitman's poems and makes the connection between Whitman's writing in the 19th century and the mission of New York Sea Grant to promote the wise use of our marine resources.
AMERICA’S COASTLINE: Whitman’s Sacred Place
“For Whitman, the shoreline, and particularly the shoreline of his
native Long Island, amounts to a sacred place, a scene to which he
ritualistically returns to revive his sense of beauty and meaning, a
site to which his identity as poet and person is anchored…“ - M. Jimmie
Killingsworth, A Study of Whitman’s Ecopoetics
There are a lot of human ways to engage the environment: as the vast
unknown, a source of adventure and exploration, as an old familiar
friend, a partner to human endeavor in the great experience of life.
Some see this earth as a resource to be used or abused, tamed or
vanquished. Some see it as their origin, habitation or final resting
place. Some men test their mettle against the environment; others see in
it a symbol of fertility, sexual power, or their own virility.
Some see danger in the forces of the earth, and think of it as their
enemy. And some treat the earth as an unbearably precious creation they
may only place their feet upon with reverence.
Then there’s Walt Whitman, who sees all of these things and more, and
expressed them with irrepressible energy and joy in his poetry.
America's great Transcendental Romantic -- and our Long Island friend
and neighbor, though separated from us by over a century of time and
history -- Walt Whitman reminds us that for those with a universal
perspective, one needs to fashion a finely crafted orchestration of
William Blake tells us we may see a world in a grain of sand. Whitman
chips in with the idea that there’s a world in every grain, and there‘s a
lot of grains of sand out there.
That's pretty multiple and diverse. But when expressed by a visionary
poet, a multiplicity of viewpoints may become a symphony of orchestrated
"Do I contradict myself?" wrote Whitman. "Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
For those in possession of a perspective that matches up with Sea
Grant's mission statement -- the promotion of environmental stewardship,
long-term economic development and responsible use of America‘s coastal
and oceanic resources -- there is much to explore in the poetry of Walt
Whitman, though his voice and perspective is diverse.
The sea is by turns a lover (“Song of Myself,” “Spontaneous Me”), a
‘powerful death-speaking mother (“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”),
a threat (“The Sleepers”) and a mournful retreat (“When Lilacs Last in
the Dooryard Bloom’d.”)
In “This Compost,” Whitman’s most ‘ecological poem,' the Good Gray Poet examines life cycle and energy conservation.
There’s Whitman the island poet, rediscovering in the surging seafoam
his ‘mother origins,’ exploring his messy wonderful sexual conceptions,
or probing his sense of mortality. The experience is sometimes so
intense that he reaches to the language of sexual climax: “You sea! I
resign myself to you … Dash me with amorous wet.”
It’s not just the sea for a universal visionary like Whitman. “Smile O
voluptuous cool-breathed earth!” he writes, demonstrating that he can
get quite ecstatic about terrestrial phenomena. “Earth of the slumbering
and liquid trees! Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains
misty-top! Earth of vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with
blue!… Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my
sake! Far-swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth! Smile, for
your lover comes!”
But one way or another, the sea -- and the shore -- are recurring psychic visitations for Whitman.
In “Song Of Joys,” we find most nearly Whitman’s voice as it pertains to
Sea Grant’s mission statement. Here we find Walt expressing the world
view of an ordinary working man who loved being among ordinary people as
they exercise their crafts, all of them interacting faithfully and
reverently with the world around them.
The view we get in “Song Of Joys” is an unquestioned one -- the balanced
interaction between the environment and human enterprise are inherent.
“O to have been brought up on bays, lagoons, creeks, or along the
coast!,” he writes. “O To continue and be employed there all my life!”
Walt Whitman’s world is one of limitless riches and unquestioned
undertakings. The efforts of small bands of working men to harvest that
world, in skiffs and on foot, dropping fishing lines or digging in the
muddy flats, are a platform for him to “laugh and joke among the
mettlesome young men.”
Mackerel fill the water for miles. Lobsters are teeming just below the
surface. When he travels out in winter, he carries in his hand little
more than “a small axe to cut holes in the ice.”
No harm, no foul. Only the joy of working men in the thrall of the world‘s expansive riches.
“Behold me, well clothed, going gaily, or returning in the afternoon –
my brood of tough boys accompanying me, my brood of grown and part grown
boys, who love to be with no one else so well as they love to be with
Some might see this viewpoint as recklessly blind. Others will see it as
a visionary ideal. In “Song Of Joys,” we see Whitman at his simple
social best, where responsible use of the nation‘s maritime resources is
Walt Whitman was a man of incredible joy, in possession of a utopian
view of the world founded in visionary, ecstatic personal and social
roots. His enormous capacity to express optimism – particularly in the
face of the challenges to America during the time he lived – is
refreshing in today’s stressed out world of limited resources and
While not always contradictory, Whitman is certainly a man for whom one
may find a variety of perspectives, and a multiplicity of visions. But
there’s no cherry-picking when it comes to Whitman’s writings. Each of
his perspectives, for Whitman, is legitimate.
That’s why a visit with Walt is an opportunity to view the sea again as
he did -- and as Sea Grant would have us see it -- as a place which,
when we are in balance with it, provides for a spiritually healthy
Or, as Killingsworth tells us, “the site of the soul’s first onset and deepest revelations.” - George Wallace December 2011