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"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" - Walt Whitman

by Jough Dempsey
22 November 1999

Read the poem: "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Setting:The Tom Jones Diner - Brookhaven, PA

Monday, 22 November 1999 - 3:30 AM

Dramatis Personæ: Jough and Shwuan - two friends

JOUGH:

(entering the door of the diner) ... so I turned to her and said "Hey! I'm trying to play GOLF, here!" She wasn't happy with that, of course.

SHWUAN:

(looking around at the booths) Where's our waitress?

JOUGH:

Pam?

SHWUAN:

No, not her.  You know the one.

JOUGH:

Oh, Cynthia!

SHWUAN:

(blessing himself) Nom de Dieu!  What an absolute angel.  No woman has ever made a gravy-stained apron look so very good.

JOUGH:

(pointing) We're to seat ourselves, according to that polite sign.

They walk toward a corner booth.

SHWUAN:

(to the sign) We will, and you're welcome.

They sit and examine their placemats, which rather conveniently contain the menus for the diner.

JOUGH:

I'm thinking of something containing pork...

SHWUAN:

(looking over at the police officer at the counter) Is it something in this room?

JOUGH:

Le flic n'est pas le truc que j'y voudrais manger. (The cop isn't what I want to eat .)

SHWUAN:

Oh, do stop that nonsense, right now.

JOUGH:

(innocently) Quoi?  Sigh.  Jough wants coffee.

SHWUAN:

It's a tad late for coffee, isn't it?

JOUGH:

Yeah, well, I have to stay up and write this stupid paper for my Dickinson/Whitman seminar class.

SHWUAN:

Oh.  My condolences.  When's it due?

JOUGH:

In about eight and a half hours.

SHWUAN:

You do the research yet?

JOUGH:

Well, it's not a research paper.  It's sort of... I don't know what to call it.  A "reflection paper"?  I just have to talk up a poem from my perspective without doing any outside research.

SHWUAN:

How annoying!  I hate it when professors make up those flaky, artsy-fartsy assignments.  Have you taken a field trip to the woods to hug trees, yet?

JOUGH:

Hey! Don't make me have to thwap you.  No, the paper is fine. Hell, I prefer assignments like these to the dull research papers that I usually have to write. It's just that, well, I'm not really sure how to approach Whitman.

SHWUAN:

Very carefully, I'd say.  And watch his hands.  I've heard him to be "grabby."

JOUGH:

I mean, the paper for Dickinson wasn't too bad.  I could get a handle on some aspect of the poem - which was really short, and then come to some sort of conclusion.  Whitman seems to elude conclusions, at least as far as individual poems go.  It's like playing dodge ball with the kid who always gets picked first. You just can't catch him, and he taunts you when you miss.

SHWUAN:

Oh, I'm sure it's exactly like that. I sense childhood trauma surfacing. Really, it's touching.  I may cry.  Which poem are you writing on, anyway?

JOUGH:

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."  You know it?  (Jough rummages through his bag) I have it with me, actually.

SHWUAN:

(taking the book from Jough) It's long, eh?

JOUGH:

Only one line longer than Prufrock - although I'd much rather be writing about Eliot right now.

SHWUAN:

And indeed there will be time for that, later. Well, maybe it would help you if we talked it out a little, eh?

JOUGH:

I suppose.  But there are nine parts to this poem.  How am I supposed to sum up a Whitman poem in three to four pages?

SHWUAN:

Don't bore me with page count.  Let's get on with it. Where is whitman in this poem?

JOUGH:

Okay, I see your line of reasoning.  Good... good... Well, he's on a ferry, isn't he?

Shwuan lays the book on the table sideways so that they can both read from it.

SHWUAN:

Naturally.  What is your first impression of this poem?  What's the impact that it has on you?

JOUGH:

I feel a sense of community, a sense of bonding with the poet.  Look here at part three, where he catalogs the things he sees on the river.

SHWUAN:

"Slow-wheeling circles and gradual edging toward the south..."

JOUGH:

"The reflection of the summer sky in the water... shimmering tracks of beams..." Oh, I totally love this one... "the fine centrifugal spokes of light..."

SHWUAN:

"The vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet..."

JOUGH:

That's gorgeous, too.  How about "the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants?"

SHWUAN:

"The white wake left by the passage..." or the "gray walls of granite storehouses by the docks" or else "Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow lights over the tops of houses and down into the clefts of streets."

JOUGH:

(sighs) Mmm... I love the sounds there... clefts of streets...

SHWUAN:

It's a great description.  I really get the feeling that I'm there.  That I'm on a ferry with Manhattan on one side and Brooklyn on the other, but I don't understand how that can give you a feeling of communion with the author, Jough?

JOUGH:

Well, that's exhibit A.  Now let's look at some other parts of the poem.  There's a lot of repetition here that really builds on the themes of the poem, but section seven will do.  How about line 88?  "What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you - I laid in my stores in advance..."

SHWUAN:

Didn't Ginsberg make some reference to that line?

JOUGH:

His "Supermarket in California" poem begins with something like "What thoughts I have of you, Walt Whitman..."

SHWUAN:

What peaches and what penumbras! 

JOUGH:

(laughing) What price bananas?  Are you my angel?

SHWUAN:
 

Well, he's obviously pulling you into the poem there.  Do you think he's talking to you, though, Jough?  They have medication that you can take for that.

JOUGH:

Oh, all throughout parts seven and eight he addresses the reader directly. Actually, he's addressing us directly throughout the entire poem, but in these sections he's very successful in drawing me in.

SHWUAN:
 

Even before that, he really makes a connection, I think.  Look at part five.  "What is it then between us?  What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?"  I mean, it's as if he knows this'll be read, and not only read, but read for a very long time.  And he addresses the time issue directly on line 56. "Whatever it is, it avails not - distance avails not, and place avails not..."

JOUGH:

Avails?

SHWUAN:
 

Avails... means like, to be of use, advantage, or help.  He's saying, I think, that time, place, or distance doesn't serve to put any distance between himself and the reader. Okay.  So I can see how you'd get a sense of connection to old Walt here because of lines like this, but how do his descriptions of the water and the ferry help to create that link, and how does this create that sense of "communion" ( Makes quotes in the air with his fingers) that you spoke of earlier?

JOUGH:

I think it helps because it engenders trust between Whitman and myself.  I mean, reading this "speaker," I have no doubt that he's been to these places - that he's seen these things - that he's seeing them right now as he's unveiling the lines.  Because I believe and trust his place and vision, I'm more inclined to believe him when he says that he's having the same thoughts of me that I am of him. That he's thinking, not just of some reader in the future, but of Jough in particular.

SHWUAN:

Oh, get over yourself, you egoist.

JOUGH:

La ferme!  Oh, here's a line that bothers me, though. Lines 63 to 64.  "I too had receiv'd identity by my body," then he breaks the line and continues "That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body."

SHWUAN:

Read that last part again, slowly.

JOUGH:

That I was I knew was of my body...

SHWUAN:

So he's saying that his essence is of the body.  His body.

JOUGH:

"... and what I should be (my emphasis) I knew I should be of my body."

SHWUAN:
 

So he's saying that what he is, is what he should be?

JOUGH:

It sounds that way.  But isn't there an easier way of saying that?

SHWUAN:

Are you going to talk about Whitman in terms of compression, now?  Please. So the man was wordy.

JOUGH:

Mmm... what words, though!  That little section just bothers me.  It's so inelegant.  So unlike him.  We should move on from this point, though.

SHWUAN:

What else does one talk about when speaking of poetry?

JOUGH:

Well, it's not like I can address his rime or meter.

SHWUAN:

Can't you?  Aren't all words delivered with some kind of meter?

JOUGH:

Touché.  Yes, you're very clever, indeed, Shwuan, but what am I to say about his long line?

SHWUAN:

You know that I get nervous when you talk about men's long lines, Jough.

JOUGH:

You're such a 'phobe. Okay, well, his language and flowing meter also help to back up his themes, here.  I mean, what am I to feel when I read lines like line 21 "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,"? - personally, I feel a bit creeped-out.

SHWUAN:

I'm with you in Rockland.  I've seen the best minds of my generation.  Maybe Ginz should have written "I've seen the best minds of my generation, or ever so many generations hence..."

JOUGH:

Heh.  I'm not sure it would have the same "punch."

SHWUAN:

Well, what makes Whitman so close to us?  So close to you, I should say.

JOUGH:

His very language is egalitarian.  He likens himself to you in your own words!  The words of the common man.  And you, my boy, are common.  He continues in section three here to make connections with the reader.  "Just as you feel... I felt. Just as you are refresh'd... I am refresh'd.  Just as you stand... I stand."

SHWUAN:

May we look at the opening of the poem?

JOUGH:
 

We may.  He opens with action.  "Flood-tide below me!"  See, he uses the specificity of "flood-tide."  It could just be the tide, but that wouldn't lead into the themes of the poem. See, the flood tide is the rising tide - the point between low and high tide when the water is rising - but it also has a double meaning of being a climax or high point - as in a flood tide of tears, or something.  "Flood-tide below me!  I see you face to face!"

SHWUAN:

Enthusiastic lad, n'est-ce pas?

JOUGH:

He certainly is very emphatic, at least.  He doesn't use another exclamation mark after part one until... (flipping through the book) part nine. The last part.  And then he marries this with the beginning.

SHWUAN:

I don't think I'd use the word "marries" when discussing our boy Walt, here.

JOUGH:
 

Listen to this - the beginning of part 9 "Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!"

SHWUAN:

So now he's back where he started?

JOUGH:

Not physically, but ideologically, and thematically, yes.  But this part is much different than part one.  Part one is curious.  He states in part one that these things he sees will be "more curious" to him than I suppose.  He's almost anticipating my incredulity.  By part nine I believe that he's confident he's won me over and may now expound on the real reason that this poem was written.

SHWUAN:

Are you saying parts one through eight were all lead-in?  I wouldn't think that Whitman would want so much of his poetry to be "throw-away" verse.

JOUGH:

No, every part is essential to the bare essence of the poem.  It's all necessary. I'm just saying that where the poem leads us is finally to part nine.

SHWUAN:

And look, he returns to his theme of a shared experience with the reader.  Line 112: "Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;"

JOUGH:

And he not only addresses me, the reader, here, but also directly addresses the birds, the water, the ships... he seems to be addressing everything that he mentioned previously in his surroundings...

SHWUAN:

His surroundings.  Interesting.  But you - Jough - the reader - are not in his surroundings, are you?

JOUGH:

I would say that by the end of the poem, I am in his surroundings.  I am a part of the poem by the poem's end.

SHWUAN:

I thought you said he was addressing the reader, in the future, earlier?

JOUGH:

Do I contradict myself?  Very well.  But I don't think I am.  He is addressing me, this penumbra of a reader in the future, but he's bringing me - from wherever I am - into the poem.  I'm part of it.

SHWUAN:

You become a transparent eyeball.

JOUGH:

You can make fun all you want, but this type of shared experience is very rare in poetry, especially in modern verse, where irony is considered something to aspire to, and sincerity and sentiment are considered an embarrassment.

SHWUAN:

I prefer goldy or silvery to irony, myself.

JOUGH:

Why do I even bother talking to you?

SHWUAN:

Let's get back to your theory.  Doesn't Whitman pull his reader into many of his other poems as well?

JOUGH:

He does, but rarely so effectively, I think, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."  I think this poem is the perfect length, and the perfect pace to achieve this psychic link with the reader.

SHWUAN:

Pace?  How does he create pace in the poem?  I mean, don't you create your own pace by how quickly or slowly you read?

JOUGH:

Well, touché.  Pace just means that it flows well.  It's short enough to be cohesive.  "Song of Myself" meanders and pulses all throughout the American landscape. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" remains very much on the river, with the flood-tide under him.  Also, this poem is more personal and less affected than Song of Myself, or other earlier poems in Leaves of Grass.  He isn't speaking of generalities, or men and women - but a particular scene that he, the poet, and I, a reader, share together.  And it's that sharing that I find to be special about this poem.  I mean, I don't care what else you say, this poem is a shared experience between the author and audience, and that sharing helps to cement my trust in him as a poet - as a guide to the landscape that he so expertly lays out in this poem.  Are you with me now?

SHWUAN:

I preferred our conversation two months ago when you were talking about Dickinson.

Shwuan begins to unscrew the sugar shaker, spilling sugar all over the table .

JOUGH:

I can't take you anywhere, can I?

SHWUAN:

Well, it appears we are not to be served here, this evening.  Do you want to go to that new Mexican place on Broad and Snyder and chomp down some burritos?

JOUGH:

You know me brother.  I'm all over that action.  Let's get out of here.

They get up and walk to the door.  On the way out, Shwuan turns back around.

SHWUAN:

(barbarically) YAWP!!!

Exeunt.

Read the poem: "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"


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