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A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge with Poets House

By Abigail Deutsch

Brooklyn_Bridge_Manhattan

This year’s Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge—an annual benefit for New York City’s Poets House—nearly didn’t happen at all. The weather reports had been grim, “foretelling” (as Coleridge writes) “the coming-on of rain and squally blast.” But the squally blasts held off, so on the evening of June 9, about 350 poetry lovers set off across the bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge has inspired poets for generations. Marianne Moore described it as a “climactic ornament, a double rainbow”; Hart Crane exulted, “we have seen night lifted in thine arms.” Even before the bridge was built, the stretch of river between Manhattan and Brooklyn inspired one of Whitman’s most astonishing poems, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

A performance of that poem has long been a highlight of the Poetry Walk, which invites Poets House supporters to cross the bridge, listen to well-known poets read in the open air, and then congregate for dinner in Brooklyn. This year, Vijay Seshadri, Thomas Lux, Mark Doty, and Naomi Shihab Nye—who, later in the evening, received the Elizabeth Kray Award for dedicated service to the field of poetry—joined the walk.

Even in rough weather, the scene was majestic. Clouds hung low; fog crowned the skyscrapers; water, city, and sky took on a matching gray hue. Meanwhile, our companions on the bridge kept us on our toes. Bikes whizzed by at alarming speeds, and more unusually, a bystander popped up with a large snake draped around his neck. (One bridge walker wondered if the spirit of Emily Dickinson was among us.)

The history of the Poetry Walk is intertwined with the history of the bridge itself. In 1983, the centennial year of the Brooklyn Bridge, Poets House’s late cofounder Elizabeth Kray “created a celebration that involved walking, readings of poems and an actual ferry,” according to Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House. The walk is “an acknowledgement of Betty’s interest in the poetry all around us.”

And that evening, poetry was all around us. Toward the end of the walk, we paused in the shadow of a great stone arch near the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The walkway there was made of wooden slats, and in the cracks between them, we could see cars flash by on the bridge’s lower level. The wind set a speaker wobbling on its narrow stand. Webs of rope stretched above our heads like giant fishnets.

Thomas Lux quoted Crane, who wrote of the bridge: “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings?” “There had to be something else,” Lux said. “There’s poetry in this bridge.”

To say nothing of all the poetry about the bridge. Seshadri read Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Brooklyn Bridge”:

As a madman
                          enters a church
or retreats
                          to a monastery,
                                                    pure and austere,
so I,
                          in the haze
                                                    of evening
humbly approach
                          the Brooklyn Bridge.
Like a conqueror
                          with cannons
                                                    tall as giraffes
entering a besieged
                          city, so, drunk
                                                    with glory,
higher than a kite,
                          I cross
                                                    the Brooklyn Bridge….
                                                    Imagine having the strength,
while standing
                          with one steel leg
                                                    in Manhattan,
to pull Brooklyn
                          toward you
                                                    by the lip!

The bridge yanking Brooklyn toward Manhattan rather than the other way around: I wondered if today’s Brooklyn-centric poetry scene would appreciate the image. Squinting toward Manhattan, I could almost see the bridge as a giant, violent steel creature straddling the water. Earlier in the walk, poet Kevin Young, who is on Poets House’s Board of Directors, had made a point that Mayakovsky’s poem proved: “The walks bring the poetry alive, and the poetry brings the city alive.”

As the weather grew more threatening, the walk continued toward an event space in Dumbo. There we ate dinner and listened to more readings, including a masterful rendition of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by poet Mark Doty. The poem asserts the connection between the poet and the reader, and as Doty spoke, it was easy to imagine that he himself was Whitman, talking to us from across the ages:

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

“That poem is a touchstone for me,” Doty said afterward. “It gives me a shiver every time—the prescience of it, the foreknowledge. Does he know the audience is coming? Is he summoning us? By his utterances, he dissolves the distance between him and us.”

As an example, Doty cited his favorite part of the poem:

We understand, then, do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not
       accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could
       not accomplish, is accomplish’d, is it not?

Doty explained: “He’s saying: ‘I can’t utter this, because it’s not sayable, but you know what I mean. And we do know.”

Anita Norman, who won the 2014 Poetry Out Loud contest, worked a similar magic when she took the podium. She performed Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers”—an appropriate choice, since Kunitz cofounded Poets House along with Elizabeth Kray. The high school junior turned the poem into a rallying cry, delivering the conclusion with a sauciness and optimism I’d never associated with the poem:

No doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

To help her connect with poetry, Norman explained afterward, she thinks about personal experiences that relate to what she’s reading. But she also bears in mind that she’s reading someone else’s words. “It’s never about me; it’s about the story and the message,” she said. “It’s the spirit of someone else, some other entity. I get out of myself. I’m not Anita anymore.”

The Poetry Walk was filled with such spirits, from Mayakovsky to Crane, from Kunitz to Kray—and the readers, assisted by their spectacular setting, brought them all close by.

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Posted in Open Door on Monday, June 16th, 2014 by Abigail Deutsch.

More Open Door Profiles: Naked ‘Lunch’: Behind the Scenes of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems | The Bagley Wright Lecture Series: A Conversation with Matthew Zapruder

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