Walt Whitman’s Advice to Journos Found: Forget Poetry, Learn Printing

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(AP) Walt Whitman is considered one of America’s greatest men of letters, but he had some surprising advice for two aspiring scribes: Don’t become a poet.

The advice is one of the tidbits Whitman left for posterity in an 1888 interview with the student newspaper at The New Jersey State Normal School, now called The College of New Jersey.

The interview was recently discovered by Nicole Kukawski, 21, a junior who sifted through old copies of The Signal while working on a literature paper about Whitman’s thoughts on education reform.

“It was really painstaking,” Kukawski said, “but it also turned out to be worth it.”

According to the article in the February 1888 edition of the paper, two young men visit Whitman at his Mickle Street house in Camden, where the elderly writer discusses the education of a writer. He tells them to practice their craft and to break conventional models.

“First, don’t write poetry; second ditto; third ditto,” Whitman says. “You may be surprised to hear me say so, but there is no particular need of poetic expression. We are utilitarian, and the current cannot be stopped.”

Whitman advised them to carry a pencil and piece of paper to jot down daily events. He even suggested they get their hands dirty in the mechanics of printing.

“Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life — mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the ‘case,’ learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation,” Whitman said.

Kukawski said she combed through the newspapers’ dusty pages to try to learn about what students at the time thought about the school, not to look for specific information about Whitman. Then she saw the interview.

The discovery astounded her teacher, David Blake, an associate professor of English.

“From the perspective of Whitman studies, it’s a small discovery, versus an undiscovered poem or book,” Blake said. “But thinking this is a junior at the college who found this in her research, this is really exciting.”

The ensuing paper Kukawski wrote about the interview will be part of a symposium the college is holding this fall to mark the 150th anniversary of both Whitman’s famous “Leaves of Grass” and the college itself.

The New Jersey State Normal School has had several name changes since the 19th century, including an incarnation as the New Jersey State Teachers College at Trenton in 1937 and Trenton State College in 1958. It became The College of New Jersey in 1996.

New interviews with Whitman are unearthed about once a year, said Ed Folsom, an English professor at the University of Iowa and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. He said there are about 100 known newspaper interviews with the poet.

“They turn up with remarkable regularity, not just the interviews with Whitman, but unpublished letters and other notes of his,” he said.

Folsom was not surprised that The Signal interview includes the advice to avoid poetry, saying Whitman equated accepted poetry with conventional form and style. But he said the call to learn printing was especially interesting.

“If you’re going to write some unconventional stuff that’s going to challenge people’s thinking, you may damn well need to publish the things yourself,” he said.

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