Tuesday, April 21, 2009

National Poetry Month: Prestwick House Recommends...

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry


(click here to view the poem)

What I like most about this poem is the way it approaches interconnectivity, what I consider a beautiful, transcendental, and secular conception of life, the universe, and all things--animate and inanimate.

The central theme of the poem appears in the beginning of Section 2:

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-joined scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated,
yet part of the scheme.

Whitman presents an idea of a perfect system, in which every object and being has a separate, unique identity, but is part of a greater whole; every individual entity draws from and shares energy with all other things.

This disintegrated interconnectivity exists between person and person. Whitman knows that he has an identity and an independent, contemplative mind, but he is still
“one of a living crowd.”

It exists between people of all lands and continents, just as Whitman notes that the ships in the bay fly the flags of many nations. Many diverse people share the experience.

It exists between person and object: the flood-tide and ferry carry the crowd across the East River, and during the journey, Whitman and others are
“refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow.”

Most fascinating of all, the scheme connects and transcends time and space. As Whitman stands aboard the ferry, watching the soft waves beneath him, the reflection of the sun on the water, the hills in the distance, and the sailors working in the rigging of nearby ships, he perceives the presence of the future—a generation of people who, two-hundred years after Whitman takes this journey home, will behold and observe the exact same scene through his eyes. Whitman projects his thoughts forward through time; the reader projects his or her thoughts backward. As Whitman writes:

It avails not, neither time nor place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

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 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 looked on thenumberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

Furthermore, the interconnectivity exists between the mind and body, the spiritual and the physical:

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.

While Whitman—as well as every human being, the reader included—is able to transcend the physical plane of existence through thought and contemplation, but he can still conceive his personal identity through the physical limitations of his body, confined within finite boundaries of the palpable world. His sensory experience crossing the East River, in addition to the laws of nature, give him an identity.

For me, this poem is both awe-inspiring and reviving. It gives me great comfort me to think of the universe as something all-encompassing and good. Every single being, object, and occurrence exists or happens for a reason. In a way, the poem echoes a statement by Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s

It is demonstrable…that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" suggests that the world is a perfect scheme, and perfect just as it is--without streams of milk and honey, a choir of angels, the endless laughter of children, and rolling hills stretching as far as the eye can see. It only takes a transcendent mind and a person who is willing to see beyond his or her own limited perception, to view the ultimate, subliminal truth—the interconnectivity—and acknowledge the perfection of the universe.

-- Stephanie Polukis, Writer

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