Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and the Poetics of The Urban World



Crossing Brooklyn Ferry bares a paradoxical relation to Passage to India. In one sense the former serves only to augment the latter's already maddening instability by providing a linear counter-narrative to its quasi-narrative of expansion. However, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is among the most stable of all Whitman's poems, borrowing its structure not from the chaotic epic of westward conquest, but from the mundane, predictable, linear, and rigidly structured experience of riding a commuter ferry. In its simple narrative structure, frankly explicit concerns and (most of all) its many affinities with the other, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry provides a more than adequate counterpoint for the discussion thus far.

The two poems cover much of the same ground. Both celebrate new technologies; both involve passages; and both overflow with a deeply felt longing to connect with the reader. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, however, seems to narrate what in Passage to India is a static moment - the "passage to you" which partially resolves the poems tensions. In Passage to India that address structure appears for a brief and fleeting moment, and the ambiguity of the address, which the poet seems to direct both to the reader and to his own soul, complicates it further. The passage is both between interior and exterior modes of existence as much as it is between the speaker of the poem and the individual reading it.

This ambiguity is appropriate to the poem - mirroring the instability which (dis)organizes it throughout - but Crossing Brooklyn Ferry invokes a far more rigidly defined structure of address. The you is present throughout, and it refers explicitly to "men and women of... generations hence" (Whitman, 116). Indeed the entire world that Crossing Brooklyn Ferry invokes is far more rigidly structured than that of Passage to India, and this I believe to be related to their difference in regional foci. Between these to poems exists an opposition which recreates Smiths argument in far more complex terms. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is linear and teleological (like the ferry trip itself). It invokes a lucid structure of address. It takes place not only in the east, but in perhaps the most completely built kind of environment of the nineteenth century - the urban metropolis. Even the East River, the sunset and the clouds overhead - among the few "natural" images which make their way into the poem - are framed by the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn or by the Manhattan skyline to the west. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry thus inverts Passage to India's "natural"/"unnatural" dynamic, placing "nature" in the frame of "technology," rather than - as in the case of the rail-road, placing technology in the frame of nature.

The poems are telling us something about the meanings that were attached to American regions in the nineteenth century and about how those meaning may be understood and competing constructions of human interaction with a non-human world. If a built environment frames an un-built one than narration is possible because the world becomes one which lends itself to cognition via cultural constructions - a category to which both sky-scrapers and stories belong. Poetry of the East is thus poetry in which linear narration and direct address of the reader become possible. Everything is in its place. Poetry of the West is poetry which must create such constructions. It cannot borrow its cultural frame from the world it invokes, it must create that frame itself. However, the frame it creates must not impose artificial limits on the West - it is an ordering device which has only chaos to work with. Thus a poem of the West must face the impossible task of standing - like the Manhattan sky-line - as a built object which provides a vocabulary by which to know a chaotic and incomprehensible world - a thing which stands between human consciousness and a world which does not lend itself to conscious understanding.

Thus, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry's narration comes pre-packaged by the stark lines of urbanity, while Passage to India must invent those lines. And in order that they be lines adequate to the world on which the poet imposes them, they must mirror the world's chaos exactly at that moment which they obscure it. Passage to India must provide the sky-line which Crossing Brooklyn Ferry may take for granted. The poem may at once be a "passage to you" and a technological epic because it conceives of itself as among those technologies organizing (and thereby making possible) human experience.