Crossing Whitman’s Ferry

After over twenty years of dreaming, I’m finally heading to New York City. I don’t think there’s ever been a place that has captivated my imagination more than Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. My father came back from a business trip when we still lived in Brighton, England, clutching a little golden statuette of the Empire State Building. Ever since then, I’ve know that I had to get there one day. That time has finally come: I’m taking a couple of days with my wonderful partner to stroll the long streets of that decadent cosmopolis in June.

Part of the trip will be spent visiting Long Island — amazingly, quite close to the birthplace of Walt Whitman. I cannot stress how exciting this is for me. Since I first set eyes on Whitman’s swirling, democratic verse, I’ve been intoxicated by the mind and spirit of the man. I’ve been to Shakespeare’s supposed birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I anticipate similar chills walking around the American poet’s Long Island home.

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To me, Whitman is New York City in so many ways. Rereading his metropolitan ode, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” I am captivated by his open address to his readers. He invites them to join him in an exploration of the city’s ability to corrupt and also raise up all those that enter into it. Whitman discusses the ominous evils that develop from such close-quartered, metropolitan living — “I am he who knew what it was to be evil, / I too knitted the old knot of contrariety;” as a reporter for the New York newspapers, the poet often covered debilitating stories of anguish and terror, experiences quite different from the otherwise peaceful life he experienced growing up just a short distance away on Long Island. Yet, as is to be expected of Whitman, the message of the poem is a promise of devotion to the subject: “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?”

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The promise of the city is very much like that of the water Whitman’s speaker observes on his crossing of the East River:

Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sunlit water!

The river holds the sunlight for the sake of downturned, ashamed faces, much like the city invites and contains the best of human achievement, in hope that such a congregation will enthral and lift up mankind. The city is a project of hope, a “necessary film” of comfort and inspiration, that evolves mankind’s sense of self and adventure, even as it exists in dirt and disgrace.

By the time the great majority of Whitman’s readers got their hands on his poem, the Brooklyn Bridge has been built, eliminating the necessity of crossing the East River by ferryboat. A little of the similitude between speaker and reader is lost because of this infrastructural shift, but not much. The city of Manhattan is still a vast realm of possibility, a place of human struggle and redemption. I don’t know how much of that I’ll see in a five-day period, but I’m willing to guess that Whitman’s ghost will be following me around for most of the trip.

If you feel like checking out the whole poem, head on over to the Poetry Foundation website!

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