Discovering Walt Whitman’s Timeless Poetry

Explore the work of the great American poet Walt Whitman in your classroom.

By Cathy Neushul


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Even though Walt Whitman’s poetry was an outgrowth of the 1800s, the themes and ideas in his works can still speak to high school students today. Whitman wrote about his hometown of Manhattan, war, and life’s many challenges. Through his poetry, you can explore issues that are meaningful to people of all ages.

Find Out Who Walt Whitman Was

First and foremost, delve into Whitman’s life. His poetry was deeply influenced by his upbringing and the challenges he faced. In my own research, I found some interesting tidbits about Whitman. I discovered that he was present at a parade in New York for Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who fought with George Washington. I was also fascinated to learn that three of his brothers had been named after United States presidents.

Careful research will reveal that Whitman, unlike many writers of his time, was not wealthy. He did not attend expensive private schools. In fact, he was the son of a farmer, which meant he had a rudimentary education. Whitman was an autodidact (self-taught). Throughout history, there have been great writers, scientists, and inventors for whom school was just the starting point in their personal quest for education. Walt Whitman is one of these self-educated masters.

Instead of studying Walt Whitman by giving your class a list of key events and aspects of his life, have them come up with their own ideas. They can list and discuss the things they think most influenced his outlook on life. For example, they could discuss his dedication to following his dreams, even against difficult odds. He was a teacher, which he quit because didn’t like it. He was also a journalist, which he loved. How did his ideals influence his life choices?

Read the Poetry

The next step is to take a look at his poetry. You can have your class read Leaves of Grass, or choose a favorite poem, and explain what it means. Make sure to have them describe why this particular poem was meaningful. Every person has different life experiences that greatly influence how they interpret and appreciate poetry. This exercise should elicit a variety of rich responses. 

Next, you could have your class choose poetry written by Whitman and another 19th century author, such as William Cullen Bryant or Emily Dickinson. They can compare and contrast the styles, content matter, and techniques used by the authors.

Bring Your Own Poetry to Life

After developing a good understanding of the techniques employed by Whitman in his poetry, each person can write his own poem relating to one of the themes that has been identified. For instance, war, their hometown, nature, or any of the other topics Whitman addressed.

Using a creative means, have each person present their work to the class. They could make a YouTube video in which they read their poetry while acting out each line. Or, they could record themselves reciting their poem to music. Given some leeway, students can be very clever with presentations. Let them decide how they would like to present. They just might discover that poetry is a personal experience that can become a lifelong pleasure.

Walt Whitman Lessons:

Walt Whitman’s Notebooks and Poetry

Take a look at the poetry of Walt Whitman by taking a look at what it meant to the poet. There is nothing like hearing what an author has to say about his work. It can make the meaning come alive.

Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy

With an emphasis on Walt Whitman’s  poems that discuss democracy, you can use this lesson to conduct a compare and contrast activity. Pupils analyze Whitman’s poetry and compare it to that of Langston Hughes. What a great way to explore some great examples of poetry.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Discuss one of Walt Whitman’s most famous poems,“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It can lead to a exploration of ways to use imagery and figurative language to describe a person’s feelings about a place or event.

Literature of the Gilded Age

Give your class a chance to read the works of the great poets of the Gilded Age. They read poetry by Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman and more. This is a motivating idea.

Writing Guide

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Cathy Neushul