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The Poetry Of The Brooklyn Bridge

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It's times like this I wish I lived in New York City. Poets House, a national poetry library and literary center, is sponsoring its 14th annual poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on Monday (June 8th). Participants will gather on the Manhattan side, joined by poets Hettie Jones, Galway Kinnell, Thomas Lux, Natasha Trethewey and Kevin Young, and stop along the walk across the East River to Brooklyn, reading from the wealth of poetry the bridge has inspired. The walk concludes with a sunset reading of Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," after which participants can join Bill Murray (!) for dinner.

It may seem odd for a bridge to be a focal point for poetry, but the Brooklyn Bridge has inspired a remarkable number of good (and some great) poems. The Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky was moved when he first saw it in 1925, as he described in his poem "Brooklyn Bridge:" stretches on cables of string
to the feet of the stars.

I stare
as an eskimo gapes at a train,
I seize on it
as a tick fastens to an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge--
That's quite a thing!

At the time of Mayakovsky's visit, the American poet Hart Crane was writing his great poem "The Bridge." Crane lived, for a while, in an apartment overlooking the East River, and in his visionary mind the Brooklyn Bridge became a springboard to the spiritual. Here's an excerpt from the opening:

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path--condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

In 1956, the beat poet Jack Kerouac celebrated the bridge in another visionary poem (Kerouac's visions may have had a called "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues":

I looked at the red winter
disgusting dusk of the world,
saw the alleys beyond,
Brooklyn, Wolfe's redbrick
jungle (that I'd only
last night walkt, unto
Gowanus Cana!)----O!
--& I remembered the dreams
the dreams about racks
and Joan Adams and drear
and a tear appeared
in my eye over the river
on the Bridge of Sights
that as soon as I'd
(c r o c o d i l e)
crossed it, had taken
me to the shore
I was looking for!
Svaha! I am
the perfect man
the Buddha of This World

In case you're new to the Beats, you shouldn't worry if the poem doesn't make total sense. You might want to worry (c r o c o d i l e) if it does.

Whitman wrote his great poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" before the bridge was built, but it celebrates the exact spot where it now stands. Just an excerpt can make one feel for New York--past, present and future--as Whitman would want:

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.

The event starts Monday, June 8th at 6:30 PM. You can go here for information/tickets.

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