The Good Gray Poet

In honor of our trip this past week to New York City, this week’s poem is by Walt Whitman, who lived in Brooklyn where he edited The Brooklyn Eagle as a young man. It wasn’t until he moved to Camden, NJ that he acquired the persona of “The Good Gray Poet” although his sometimes explicit verse made him a controversial figure during his time. When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Emily Dickinson’s editor) wrote, “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ only that he did not burn it afterwards.”

Some scholars believe Whitman’s signature long-line free verse form was influenced by his habitual wandering of the long north-south avenues of Manhattan where he saw the world come to him. He writes about the island and the people he encountered in his forays in this poem.

 

Mannahatta

by Walt Whitman

Walt WhitmanI WAS asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient;
I see that the word of my city is that word up there,
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful
spires,
Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships—an island sixteen
miles
long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly
uprising toward clear skies;
Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,
The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the
villas,
The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black
sea-steamers well-model’d;
The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business—the houses of business of
the
ship-merchants, and money-brokers—the river-streets;
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;
The carts hauling goods—the manly race of drivers of horses—the brown-faced
sailors;
The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft;
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells—the broken ice in the river, passing along, up or
down,
with the flood tide or ebb-tide;
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you
straight
in the eyes;
Trottoirs throng’d—vehicles—Broadway—the women—the shops and
shows,
The parades, processions, bugles playing, flags flying, drums beating;
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the
most
courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and
masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with
them!
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk,
eat,
drink, sleep, with them!

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