Celebrate Whitman’s 200th Birthday, and His Poetry, at Birthplace

Walt Whitman may have been born 200 years ago, for which there will be a celebration this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, at Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, but his legacy, and poetry in general, are alive and well in the area.

Just ask WWBA’s Executive Director Cynthia Shor.

“Poetry is thriving on Long Island,” she says, later adding, “There are many poetry groups all over Long Island, and they have publications, and we have collaborative readings, meaning we invite their groups to come to the Birthplace and hold their events.”

Examples of local poetry organizations are the Long Island Poetry Collective and the Performance Poets Association. Yet, you don’t have to be the member of a special group to enjoy what the WWBA has to offer. “We have programs for all ages and all interests,” Shor says.

There are lectures, discussion series, workshops, and regular readings featuring regional, and more famous, poets. There are also family days, tea parties, art programs, at the Huntington Station site and the annual student poetry contest (this year’s had 2,500 entries from as far away as California and Japan). This is not to mention tours, which explore the life and times during  of the famous American poet and essayist during his  years there (1819-1823), and exhibits, the spaces for which are being redone.

“The permanent exhibition was renovated and resurfaced, and then we are adding a new large-screen TV for [the 200th Anniversary] celebration, and, long-term, we are adding two interactive kiosks for the community and visitors to interact with the computer programming and TV videos,” Shor says. 

On additional changes, she notes, “We have a new, permanent exhibit of photos — portraits of our poets-in-residence — and those are hanging in the classroom, and the classroom was recently renovated with new bookshelves.” And there’s good news for the visiting scholars, who, she says, “come from all over who want to come and walk in Walt’s footsteps”: WWBA’s collections management system has been updated and improved.

Assistance came from various sources. “The Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation offered us a grant to help with the renovation, and New York State Parks and New York State Education Department also gave us funding, and we had matching funding from the [WWB] Association,” Shor says.

Though many were involved, over the years, in preserving the Birthplace and allowing its treasures to be available to the public, it has continued to blossom under Ms. Shor’s tenure, which began in 2007. However, she doesn’t do it alone. “We get wonderful support from Suffolk County and the Town of Huntington,” she says. She gives shout-outs to the Huntington Arts Council, Humanities NY, and her Board and coworkers, too: “We have a strong Board and a fine staff.” Some staff are volunteers; new volunteers are welcome.

The May 31st, June 1st, and June 2nd happenings are free or low-cost, and all are welcome to them, as well. There will be docents in period costumes, poetry in performance, and live music, among other things. “The birthday weekend is very exciting,” Shor says. “On May 31st, we’re going to have the launch of the new exhibit, and, on June 1st, we’re having the unveiling of the historic Pomeroy roadside marker.”

If you can’t make it that weekend, not to worry. There is a Whitman family reunion scheduled for July 27, and a scholarly conference in August. The fall brings Library of Congress archivist Barbara Bair, plus Zachary Turpin on recently discovered Whitman writings, and former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel on Whitman and democracy.

“Our doors are always open,” Shor says. “We invite people just to come feel the tranquility and be inspired to write poetry.”

Walt Whitman Birthplace: 246 Old Walt Whitman Road; (631) 760-6216.

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