Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

I too lived-- Brooklyn of ample hills was mine”: Teaching Whitman on the Rooftops of Brooklyn Heights
Ian Maloney St. Francis College

Teaching Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” within the contexts of modern day Brooklyn Heights enabled me to participate in a moment of poetic connection, which I have never before experienced. Over the course of the last few years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach Whitman’s poetry at St. Francis College on Remsen Street , right down the street from Brooklyn ’s Borough Hall. During my last summer session course in 2004, I was able to teach Whitman’s poem atop the roof of my college and on the beautiful Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which grants walkers, runners, sitters, talkers, and thinkers with perhaps the most breathtaking view of Manhattan possible. All of downtown Manhattan is within view; your eyes can set sight on a panorama that stretches from the Verrazano Bridge crossing to Staten Island, right across to midtown’s Empire State Building . Herman Melville once mused through Ishmael in Moby-Dick, that, “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever” (4). The Brooklyn Promenade’s view of Manhattan testifies loud and clear to that fact, with its “silent sentinels…fixed in ocean reveries” (4). With the Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty in plain view, the altered post-September 11 cityscape, and the mystical insights of Whitman in our ears, my class and I sought to think about the power of poetry to connect our understanding of the past with our pull towards the future in that present classroom moment.

My plan was twofold: one, have a dramatic reading of the poem from the multi-cultural members of my class out in full view of the natural setting that Whitman referenced so prominently, namely, the ferry waterfront from the college rooftop and the backdrop of the Manhattan cityscape; two, have a discussion centered around the connections forged between Whitman and the current students of St. Francis College, a small liberal-arts commuter school in the heart of Brooklyn Heights, NY, which serves a diverse student body, with students drawn from a variety of ethnicities and very different economic and educational backgrounds. Students in my summer course majored in everything from education to the social sciences, from the humanities to nursing. The class brought together native New Yorkers--Brooklynites, Manhattanites, and Staten Islanders--international students from Trinidad and Eastern Europe, a student from St. Louis , Missouri , and even one non-traditional student from Brooklyn , who returned to college after fifteen years away in the work force. Students ranged from all four years of college experience, with seven graduating seniors, right down to a second semester freshman. Many of these students, I admit, fell into the broad and blunted category of “hesitant learners.” I needed to find a way to make Whitman accessible and enjoyable--to create a lasting connection with this Brooklyn poet from the start of the class.

On our first day discussing Whitman, I found myself sitting in my office early in the morning, anxious about my experiment to follow. Taking the students up on the roof could be construed as grandstanding; maybe I was trying too hard for a Dead Poets Society moment. I felt a bit like Mr. Keating with his grainy portrait of Uncle Walt in the front of the classroom that first day when we began “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” How would this change in setting be accepted? Would it help or hinder the teaching of Whitman’s poem? Could I translate my enthusiasm for this poem to a diverse group of student learners, even when some of the students in my class would have chosen oral surgery over talking about poetry? How do I do this without sounding hokey or preachy? Would they brand me a Keating wannabe and dismiss Whitman entirely? I cringed at the thought of a mass revolt; I hoped for some divine intervention on the part of the gray-bearded poet. In a strange way, I received what I asked for.

As I strolled into the old science classroom into which my college had dropped Survey of American Literature, I secretly was hoping that students wouldn’t laugh when I prompted them to take their books and follow me. A few of the students looked around when told that a change in classroom setting was in order. Some seemed to be asking in a Brooklyn-accented interior monologue: “Is this guy for real?” Most of the college’s community felt the same way, as my class of 25 students paraded up the stairs and out onto the roof. Security guards appeared three times in the first fifteen minutes up there to inquire if something was wrong, if everything was ok; one guard even asked: do you have everything under control up here, Professor? I could see administrators come to the rooftop door throughout that two-hour class session just to check and see what was going on up there. Occasionally, they stopped to listen in on the discussion.

Once the students got comfortable up on the roof, we turned to reading the poem aloud. We read the entire poem, five or six lines per student. Voices rang out; some were loud and clear; others were softer and a bit muffled. The Brooklyn accent read next to Trinadadian; this was then followed by a Midwestern drawl and a professional actor’s rendition from one shy and unusually quiet student. The mixture of heterogeneous voices rose above the various sounds of the city streets below: the construction of an apartment building three blocks away, the horns of cabs and trucks below, and the various ventilation shafts around us. The diversity of voices gave new life to Whitman’s poem. Throughout the reading, I could see nods in agreement and wonder, mixing right in with eyes rolled and stares drifting toward “the city” as it is affectionately known.

At the close of the reading, we began to talk. The power of Whitman’s poetry could be gauged by the diverse reactions from students. On one end of the spectrum, students react powerfully against the text: A middle-aged nursing student from Staten Island states bluntly: “He’s dead. How is he with me and getting closer? That’s creepy.  And, isn’t our world much more complicated than his? What could he mean that time and distance avails not? Of course, it does. Our time is much harder than a world of ships and ferries. Come on! Internet, cell phones, cars, airplanes! And did Whitman have to deal with all the prereqs, paper requirements, placement tests and new technologies that we do, in order to make a living? I don’t think so.” A few laughs and chuckles follow closely behind.

I’m a bit startled by this hostility--and before I can throw in my opinion, the quiet student, who gave a near professional performance of the poem, states her opinion, from the opposite end of the spectrum: “You’re missing the point, I think. I mean this poem is talking about the things that bring us together. We do share similarities across time--those ferry riders are people like us, sharing daily struggles, triumphs, failures, hopes, and dreams. It’s all here. You’re just looking at it too literally. I think you have to see the broader picture he’s talking about.”

With those two opinions voiced, I was happy to see Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone come into focus right there on the rooftop, without much prompting. I saw our class becoming one of such “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly symmetrical relations of power” (584). I saw lines being drawn through the air--students sitting on black rooftop tar, taking sides and thinking about the space between them and Whitman. Those lines either would have to hold, fold, expand, or snap during the course of the Whitman discussions. The nursing student and the quiet professional, unknowingly, had created a silent divide in the class and sides were quickly drawn in each student’s mind.     

I chime in at this point. I admit to my nursing student that there is something unsettling in Whitman’s poem. He is reaching out to us across the page and across the span of time. I explain that this connection across time was what Whitman was seeking. The nursing student quickly looked through the text and read a few lines again, “Closer yet I approach you / What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you--I laid in my stores in advance / I considered long and seriously of you before you were born”(153). I can see the future nurse glare towards the quiet professional, almost as if to say: “You buy into THIS? This poet is thinking of ME before I was even born?” The quiet professional fires back with a calculated line, “These and all else were to me the same as they to you”(152). There is a palpable tension on that rooftop. I can feel it myself. The nursing student speaks again, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but this just seems like bragging. Whitman seems so egotistical. How can he look ahead to me? What is he? God? He sounds sacrilegious.” A few traditionally-minded students echo similar concerns, believing that Whitman is over-stepping his boundaries and biting off a bit more than he can chew. His omniscience startles them. I begin to talk a little bit about Whitman’s Transcendentalism--Emerson, the Over-Soul, the Poet. I make the necessary teacher connection with Emerson’s praise of Whitman at the start of a great career, but something holds me back from delving much further into nineteenth-century religion and mysticism. I’m losing my audience; I can see it. Even the quiet professional student senses a teacher tirade on the way. I’m also losing the impact of my setting. Many of them are staring past me--the cityscape, the construction, the administrators at the rooftop door, even the rooftop tar below their feet seem far more interesting than my Emersonian connection.

I need to re-center the discussion. I know it. I’m reminded that many of the students think in very traditional ways. If I push Whitman’s radical sensibilities, God-like omniscience, or too much philosophy, I’m going to lose many of them. How do I reach them without compromising Whitman’s message?     

We break for a short spell; the students refresh with iced coffees and water. For some reason, a quote from Christopher Morley that I had read in a recent Brooklyn guidebook comes to mind. I rush to the office to get the quote online and bring back a page of the e-text with me. After break, I start the class by passing out Morley’s statement from the 1917 Parnassus on Wheels and reading it aloud: New York is Babylon ; Brooklyn is the true Holy City . New York is the city of envy, office work, and hustle; Brooklyn is the region of homes and happiness. It is extraordinary: poor, harassed New Yorkers presume to look down on low-lying, home-loving Brooklyn , when as a matter of fact it is the precious jewel their souls are thirsting for and they never know it. Broadway: think how symbolic the name is. Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction! But in Brooklyn the ways are narrow, and they lead to the Heavenly City of content. Central Park : there you are--the centre of things, hemmed in by walls of pride. Now how much better is Prospect Park , giving a fair view over the hills of humility! There is no hope for New Yorkers, for they glory in their skyscraping sins; but in Brooklyn there is the wisdom of the lowly.”

Now, maybe Morley’s quote is a bit extreme and dichotomous, but it works wonders with the group. They nod in agreement: Their Brooklyn, it’s a place of home, heaven, happiness, and humbleness. It is the borough of the perpetual underdog, like its lost Dodgers facing down the daunting empire of Yankee pinstripe pride, or Willy Loman seeking the American Dream in Death of a Salesman. Morley’s quote also leads them back to Whitman’s poem. I ask, “How could this relate back to Whitman? What connects Morley, Whitman, us? What are we doing up here anyway?” 

The St. Louis student with a Cardinals baseball cap on states simply: “This place is the connection. Whitman walked and worked here, right? And he thought enough of this place to write a great and beautiful poem. Could this be the holy city, Whitman’s place of ample hills? Maybe it’s a simpler, more rugged place than that glass and concrete labyrinth over there?” I nod in full agreement, and pose a follow-up question: “Maybe we need spaces like this, a trip out of our everyday work world, to understand our connections with others that came before us? Maybe we need some time for reflection on our surroundings in order to recompose ourselves for some of the chaos around us? For me, at least, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ serves as a reminder that poetic perception of the things around us is crucial for our life and work. Wallace Stevens believed that all of us share poetic perception. Maybe this poem can allow us to see some of the poetry of everyday life, right here in Brooklyn . When I read this poem, I always feel that Whitman has renewed my sense of connection with this place I live and work in.” Brooklyn bridges the gap for us. I mention another native son in Arthur Miller at this point and his family’s journey down Manhattan and over to the Midwood section of Brooklyn for economic reasons. Miller’s journey lends support that great things can sprout right around us, from humble origins. Ironically, Miller’s last public appearance would be downstairs in the St. Francis auditorium the following spring for the International Arthur Miller conference.  

With that exchange and some follow-up conversation related to Morley’s quote, we’ve moved back to the space of Brooklyn Heights and have made a powerful connection with the space around us. The conversation moves back to the space we occupy and share with Whitman--this Brooklyn of ample hills, where Whitman worked and lived, thought and wrote. This journeyman printer, farmer, teacher, and journalist turned Brooklyn poet looked at this place just as we do. Whitman asked perpetual questions--those curious abrupt questionings--and sought a new poetics of social inclusion and cultural change. So could we, right there atop that roof. Our position placed us right in Whitman’s path and line of thinking.

Many of the students begin to see poetry in a new light; perhaps, it isn’t such foreign territory after all. I can sense connections between poet and students. This Brooklyn that they live and work in, now has a new face from the past, greeting them for the first time. Many of the students discuss the simple power of his images, his words, reexamining the spaces we occupy everyday. Whitman celebrates their home or their home away from home. His poem allows them to appreciate this place that they are growing in intellectually, spiritually, and physically a bit more.

The metaphor of the ferry becomes important as the conversation continues. As we are talking, the Staten Island Ferry heads to port in Manhattan . One student, hesitatingly, mentions the fact that he takes the orange ferry to get here each day. He ferries to Manhattan , takes the train back to Brooklyn to school. He’s a business major; in fact, he reasons that he will cross the ferry throughout his life to get to Wall Street in order to make a living and admits that he has never really paused to think about the others around him very much. He usually turns on his music or reads his paper without ever noticing those around him. Solipsism slowly is being replaced by a bit of solidarity. Many other students see their future travels to Manhattan to business careers as moments of connection between Whitman, the poem, and themselves. The Staten Island business major ends with a cliché which makes a stir, “Hey, the more things change, I guess, the more they stay the same.” This student would proudly admit the next day in class that he catalogued his fellow travelers on his way home to Staten Island that evening in his class notebook.

At this point, Whitman’s poem has established a powerful connection with place. Several of my students think of the connections across time--others, like themselves, heading on the ferry into work and on with their lives, and the certainty of others to follow. We discuss the Brooklyn Ferry and mythic ferries, crossings into work worlds, underworlds and other worlds. I mention Orpheus’ journey into the underworld to bring his lost love Eurydice back into the light. The similarities between the past and the future come alive. There is both a sense of comfort and haunting in slowly realizing the ebb and flow of human existence. Others have faced similar journeys in this space; countless others will follow long after we have gone.

The nursing student from Staten Island , a daily driver I learn, is still not wholly convinced. “Let me ask all of you: would Whitman have been able to feel what we feel post-September 11? I mean, I don’t know about all of you, but could anyone possibly understand what it’s like to be a New Yorker now that the Towers have collapsed? We live in a much more complicated world.” Many students, feeling the powerful devastation of a cityscape without the World Trade Center , concur that Whitman could not possibly understand the complexities of the modern world and the terror felt around them. Hijacked planes, suicide bombers, terror alerts, color codes, fear, paranoia enter our conversation. The turn to 9/11 was not completely unexpected, but it was one that I pursued gingerly. I knew students in that class had lost loved ones; I too knew what that was like.       

I reminded my students at this point that a powerful counterpoint, of course, can be found in the text of the poem itself, when the poetic voice reminds us that the “dark patches” fell upon him as well:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall

The dark threw its patches down upon me also

The best I had done seemed to me blank and suspicious,

My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meager?

Nor is it you alone who knows 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.  (153)     

We begin to discuss the implications of the dark patches that Whitman had to encounter in his space of time in nineteenth-century Brooklyn: senseless street violence, city disasters, theater riots, extremely poor sanitary conditions, racial tensions and draft riots, political corruption, the impending doom of the Civil War, the complexity of Manifest Destiny and its pull on America’s imagination, the tremendous contested surges of immigration, and, of course, the changing grounds of Brooklyn’s own geographical shift from the pastoral to the urban. One student referred to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York as a popular, yet fictional vision of the New York that Whitman knew and loved. The nursing student nods a bit--this turn towards nineteenth-century New York history levels a bit of the distance between poet and reader. I can sense that she is pairing events in her mind and making connections. Perhaps we weren’t that far removed after all. Sure, things have changed, but complications and destructive forces surrounded Whitman as well. Whitman forced the nursing student to reexamine those dark patches and realize that others before had felt the pain of terror, sadness, and disruption. One student quietly reminds the class that there will always be more dark patches to follow.

The discussion fleshes out Whitman as a poet of contradiction, a perfect emblem for the borough itself as he simultaneously couples Manhattan-like sprawl with Brooklyn ’s intimate pastoral spaces of parks and middle-class homes. Brooklyn , like its native son, becomes a vehicle for reevaluating one’s vision of community, continuity, contradiction, and change. Comically, even some of the most reluctant learners--my Bensonhurst students particularly--consider Whitman an o.k. guy, as poetry goes. Brooklyn brings them together.

I saw this happen in my class because Whitman created a place of connection in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which was not destined solely for the erudite, the classically learned, or the so-called elite arbiters of cultural taste. In Whitman’s vision, poetry was a place to celebrate the democratic spirit of the ages, a place with room for all. Whitman, this poet of our Brooklyn , came alive during those class hours. With our talks on the rooftop--and through our later attempt at capturing in words our own updated versions of “Brooklyn Ferry” after a walking trip down to the Promenade--students began to feel inspired in the knowledge that one of their own, this Whitman that walked in their shoes, literally could look ahead to them long before they were born and inspire them to great things. 

The magical, almost mystical feeling of his words was palpable. Whitman reached out from the page and across the span of time and drew us together, regardless of the innovations and trends of our contemporary age. While Whitman championed the darker images of the foundry fires of industry and the black clouds of chimney soot of his city, my students tackled rush-hour lunches, ferry boat crashes, the absence of towers, and bourgeoning skylines. Many of them cleverly wrote about summer skies and light glimmering off the same sea Whitman saw, sea-birds continuing their flights, and updated sea vessels navigating the channel to port. In my mind, this poet with the grey beard was reminding us to love and appreciate all that surrounds us, regardless of time and space. He was allowing my students to see those hills in Brooklyn inside all of us, particularly the peaks and valleys that come with the territory of being human.

Change is inevitable and people will be drawn to hasten on with their lives, almost as if they are being frantically swept up by the pace of their obligations and keeping up with the currents of progress. Sometimes, like the nursing student, people can be caught too firmly in the web of their times, unable to see connections with others, but it is the poet and his words that remind us to re-center ourselves, to be firm for those that lean idly. Whitman called on my students to take the time to stop and look, to reflect on the beauty and the ugliness around us, and to appreciate this borough of Brooklyn just as he did. As a teacher, Whitman’s poem and our discussions of it led me to a greater understanding of my space and work as a teacher in Brooklyn Heights . Without sounding hokey, Whitman reached back and connected with those that he had curiously held in his meditations long ago.  


Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. New York : Penguin, 1992.

Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. 1917. Project Gutenberg. 10 July 2004 .            <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/prnsw10.txt>.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” In Ways of Reading : An Anthology for Writers. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston : St. Martin ’s,1999.

Whitman Walt. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” 1856. In The Portable Walt Whitman. New York : Viking, 1974.


Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place