Arthur Sze reads Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
1 Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face; Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face. Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me! On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose; And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. 2 The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day; The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme: The similitudes of the past, and those of the future; The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings— on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river; The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away; The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them; The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others. Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore; Others will watch the run of the flood-tide; Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east; Others will see the islands large and small; Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high; A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide. 3 It avails not, neither time or 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 look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd pipes of steamboats, I look'd. I too many and many a time cross'd the river, the sun half an hour high; I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies, I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow, I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south. I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water, Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams, Look'd at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water, Look'd on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward, Look'd on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet, Look'd toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships, Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me, Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor, The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars, The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants, The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses, The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels, The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set, The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening, The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks, On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank'd on each side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter, On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night, Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets. —Walt Whitman
Arthur Sze on Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Transcription of Commentary
Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was published in 1856 as the “Sun-Down Poem” in the second edition of Leaves of Grass and had its present title in 1860. The poem relates to the theme of migration but cannot be contained by it. In nine sections, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” enacts Whitman’s challenge to and unification with, the reader. Just as the ferry travels from Manhattan to Brooklyn and closes the gap, Whitman’s poem closes the gap between poet and reader. The poet’s speaker asserts his identity through physicality. I too received identity by my body and the crowd on the ferry soon becomes everyone who has ever traveled, anyone who has ever gone home, anyone who will ever go home.
Walt Whitman is a quintessential American poet—but the speaker reaches out, not just to all Americans, but to all people across the globe as he observes the flags of all nations. And in ferrying across water, one inevitably thins of Kharon transporting souls across the river Styx after death. In the rocking motion of the lines which mimic, the flood tide and ebb tide, the speaker unites all people in their common experience of life. The speaker’s intimate yet insistent form of address for the reader dissolves boundaries and eventually individual parts dissolve into a whole. The simple, compact, well-joined esteem, myself disintegrated—everyone disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.
In the eighth section, the speaker brings back the river and sunset and scalloped edge waves of flood tide, accomplishes his union with the reader, and the identities of “I” and “you” flow into “we”.
Now that union is accomplished and the tensions of the poem, light and dark, speaker and reader, life and death, past and future, are resolved.
The speaker, in the final section, in a catalogue of exuberant exhortations calls on time and life. “Flow on river,” he says and brings back, yet again the tide, waves, clouds, seagulls, and other key images as appearances envelope the soul.
Walt Whitman’s poetry has been important to my evolution as a poet. In my late thirties, I reached a stage where I wanted to break apart the conception of a poem as a well-wrought urn, so that more of the world could enter into my poetry. I was interested in developing complex sequences where several narratives could be spun together. For awhile, juxtapositions could create dramatic tensions and also explore the relation between part and whole, where the poem’s unfolding, was not linear but involved succession and simultaneity, and where Asian as well as Western aesthetics could be forged into something new.
In American Literature, I read and reread Whitman’s great sequences. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was, and continues to be, a source of inspiration and these brief comments cannot do justice to the magnificence of this poem. It needs to be read again and again.
This poem is in the public domain.
- The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, by Arthur Sze (catalog record)
- Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass (online exhibition)
Arthur Sze (1950- ) was born in New York and educated at the University of California at Berkeley. He the author of eight poetry collections, including The Gingko Light (2009) and is also known for his translations of Chinese poetry. Sze’s many honors include a Lannan Literary Award and an American Book Award. He has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. Photo Credit: Gloria Graham.
Learn more about Arthur Sze at The Poetry Foundation
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has been called the father of American poetry, and is best remembered for his foundational book of poems Leaves of Grass (1855). Born in New York, he began an apprenticeship at the age of 12 in the printing trade. He went on to become a journalist, eventually leaving his home state to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. He returned to Brooklyn where he founded the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to write and develop his unique style of free verse. With the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman gained renown among the transcendentalist school of American intellectuals, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman left New York to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. but eventually settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he lived until his death.
Learn more about Walt Whitman at The Poetry Foundation