May 31, 2005

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (excerpt)

by Walt Whitman

TUESDAY, 31 MAY, 2005
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Poem: excerpts from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman.

excerpts from Crossing Brookyn Ferry

It avails not, time nor place-distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
so many generations hence,
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
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the
bright flow, I was refresh'd,
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-stemm'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd.

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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Walt Whitman, born West Hills, Long Island (1819). When Whitman was six years old, his father took him to see the Marquis de Lafayette, the great French General, who picked the little boy out of the crowd, lifted him up and kissed him on the cheek, which Whitman felt later marked him for greatness.

In his teens he was an apprentice printer on a newspaper in Brooklyn. He wandered around the city, looking at museums and going to theaters, talking to people on the streets. He loved printing. He loved the way words looked on a page. He said of his first published writing, "How it made my heart double beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper in nice type."

There was a fire in Manhattan in December 1835 that destroyed the printing district. Whitman had to move and get a job as a teacher. He taught in a series of one-room schoolhouses and wrote to a friend, "How tired and sick I am of this wretched, wretched hole. Damnation, thy other name is school teaching."

Walt Whitman moved back to New York City and started writing for newspapers. He loved the penny papers—the cheap ones—their lively style. He said, "I like limber, lashing, fierce words... strong, cutting, beautiful, rude words." He liked to walk up and down Broadway and around in Battery Park.

He wrote a novel about the evils of alcohol called Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, (1842). It sold more than 20,000 copies. He went to New Orleans in 1846 to write for a newspaper there. He was amazed at what he saw: the mixture of Spanish and English and French. He saw slaves being auctioned on the block. He came to believe that he should write something to hold the country together, that America needed a poetry unlike poetry of Europe. The first edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855, unrhymed, un-metered poetry that combined language of sermons, romantic poetry and working class slang.

He sent copies to many important writers. John Greenleaf Whittier threw his in the fire. Ralph Waldo Emerson responded. He wrote to Whitman, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," which Whitman later printed on the cover. It was one of the first blurbs in American publishing. It got mostly terrible reviews, but Whitman kept issuing new editions.

He died in 1892, more popular in Europe than in this country, but now he is considered the first great American poet.

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