Thursday, April 25, 2013
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman
Every Monday evening on my way back from a class at NYU, I pass a building that spouts poetry—7 World Trade Center. Across a glass wall behind the reception desk in the lobby, prose and poetry scroll by in 14-foot-high letters. In keeping with this Manhattan location near the water, one of the poems scrolling by turns out to be Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
I'm adding this to the short list of Whitman poems that I really enjoy. Many places in this poem, Whitman tips his hat to future generations, to you and to me. He ties a bond of commonality, of community, between himself and us, the New Yorkers of today.
Excerpts from three stanzas of the poem:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.
Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
The poem revels in our continuity based on common experiences. The last lines of stanza 5 see the body as both a vehicle for the individual and a means by which to partake of common experience: it is where the self and the world come together.
Another poem by Whitman, Manhatta, images industrious Manhattan and the surging streams of 19th-century commuters coming to Wall Street by ferry.