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Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see 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.

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.

[…]

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.

It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
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.

[…]

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me

[…]

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy

“Have I not said that womanhood involves all? Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?”

The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in contemplating the mightiest force of resistance in times far more troubled than ours, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” To Whitman, who declared himself “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” the gravest weakness of democracy was the artificial, culturally manufactured inequality of the genders, which he recognized not only as a corruption of democracy but as a corruption of nature. Equality for him, be it of the genders or the races, was never a matter of politics — that plaything of the human animal — but a matter of naturalness. Because he saw how thickly interleaved our individual dignities are, how interdependent our flourishing — saw that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — he took it upon himself, a century and a half before his society did, to save democracy from politics, standing up for the rightful balance of dignity and power. Anne Gilchrist — the unheralded genius whom Whitman admired as “a sort of human miracle” belonging “to the times yet to come” — spoke for the epochs when she asked: “Who but he could put at last the right meaning into that word ‘democracy,’ which has been made to bear such a burthen of incongruous notions?”

Walt Whitman (Photograph by Mathew Brady, early 1860s)

Whitman threw himself at righting — naturalizing — the gender imbalance of democracy not despite his maleness but precisely because of it. At the heart of his devotion to equality was an astute insight into the paradox of power: the understanding that no socially and politically marginalized group — not even a biological majority — moves to the center solely by its own efforts; it takes a gravitational pull by those kindred to the cause who are already in relative positions of power or privilege. It was a countercultural understanding in his time, and remains a countercultural understanding in ours, its negation ahistorical: Citizens helped us immigrants obtain legal rights and protections; white women like astronomer Maria Mitchell and literary titan Margaret Fuller were on the ideological front-lines of abolition, some even on the literal front-lines of the Civil War.

Long before the term feminism wove itself into the modern lexicon, America’s most celebrated poet (though perhaps the second-greatest) became an outspoken feminist. In his 1888 poem “America” — a reading of which is the only surviving recording of his voice — Whitman eulogized his homeland as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons.” He added this poem to his continually revised and expanded Leaves of Grass in the final years of his life, but coursing through it was the pulse-beat of a longtime conviction: As a young man, Whitman was greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures Figuring — whose epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century catalyzed American women’s emancipation movement. Clippings of Fuller’s columns for the New-York Tribune, where she became the first female editor of a major American newspaper and America’s first foreign war correspondent, were found among Whitman’s papers after his death.

Nearly two decades after Fuller radicalized society, but long before her legacy helped women win the right to vote, Whitman composed a remarkably prescient essay on the obstacles to democracy, included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Insisting that no democratic society could exist in which women are not afforded the same rights as men, he wrote:

I have sometimes thought… that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.

[…]

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.

A century before Adrienne Rich argued for literature as a force of women’s empowerment and a form of resistance to male capitalist society, Whitman called for the creation of a new American literature that would be as much an original art form as a tool of social change. Among “the most precious of its results,” Whitman envisioned, would be “achieving the entire redemption of woman… and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race.” Art, he resolutely believed, was the ultimate catalyst for social transformation and betterment:

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Whitman’s first serious biographer, the great nature writer John Burroughs, notes in his exquisitely beautiful and loving portrait of the poet, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), that Whitman always heralded woman as man’s equal and never his plaything, property, or unpaid domestic servant, always as capable of embodying the qualities Whitman most celebrated in human nature. Burroughs wrote:

I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman type — the kind of woman he invoked and predicted… They are cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural, good-natured… in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.

Burroughs placed the equality of men and women as the crowning achievement of a more Whitmanesque society — the more democratic society of the future:

The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality prevails, — the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Whitman himself had written in Leaves of Grass:

The race is never separated — nor man nor woman
escapes;
All is inextricable — things, spirits, nature, nations,
you too — from precedents you come.

[…]

The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better
than the best womanhood?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement with Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

Between the Body and the Soul: Neri Oxman Reads Walt Whitman

A timeless song of praise for our belonging with “Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees,” with “night of the large few stars.”

Between the Body and the Soul: Neri Oxman Reads Walt Whitman

A century before computing pioneer Alan Turing comforted his dead soul-mate’s mother, and perhaps himself, with the insistence that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” and generations before Rilke defiantly refused to become “one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) appointed himself the poet of the body and the poet of the soul in one of the most famous opening lines in all of poetry, from one of the most beloved poems in his Leaves of Grass — a poem that has helped Holocaust survivors survive and continues to help generations endure the small everyday terrors of life.

That timeless, generous poem came alive at The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in partnership with Pioneer Works — in a soulful performance by designer, artist, architect, inventor, and poet of matter Neri Oxman.

Half a century after Rachel Carson made ecology a household word, Oxman coined the term material ecology — a term Whitman would have cherished — to describe her singular work weaving the structures, systems, and aesthetics of nature, from silkworms to honeybees to the human breath, into our built environment. That term became the title of a visionary Museum of Modern Art exhibition by curator Paola Antonelli, making Oxman the first designer working in material science to have a major exhibition at a major New York art museum, a century and a half after Whitman envisioned museums as places to teach us “the infinite lessons of minerals… wood, plants, vegetation.” At the time of her Universe in Verse performance, she had just given birth to her first child — that supreme attunement of the body and the soul in the poetry of being, an embodied consecration of Whitman’s conviction, thoroughly countercultural in his day, that “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” and that “there is nothing greater than the mother of men.”

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night — press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds — night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night — mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset — earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow’d earth — rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.

Couple with poet Sarah Kay’s wondrous performance from the same show, then revisit other timeless treasures from the full-scale Universe in Verse: Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Krista Tippett reading “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, and Whitman’s classic “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Whitman-era portrait of Neri Oxman by Brooklyn Tintype

BP

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.

As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:

The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”

But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)[

And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.

For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.

BP

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