Disaffected Prep

Monday, August 17, 2009


Sentence of the Day: Whitman on the 1,2,3

“I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”

--Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Whenever I take the subway, I think of one of two poems. When the train comes into the station, Mark Doty’s “Oncoming Train,” pops into my head, in which the awesome magnitude of a train’s irrepressible force compels Doty to steady himself, “against a pillar / on the platform, or stand at a distance, against the brick wall, / in order to feel that I will more firmly resist the impulse.” The impulse here meaning the desire to become, what the NYPD euphemistically calls, a “jumper.”

Doty (and myself, for that matter) don’t really desire this fate – but rather acknowledges that this moment is the “clearest invitation and opportunity / to strike against time,” and becomes fascinated with the daily repetition with what he calls, “the most dangerous thirty seconds of my day, twice every day…”

However, when I step upon the train, my thoughts travel back to Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Uncle Walt’s famous meditation on the faces of the ferry crossers, and those who have or ever will take the ferry.

I came to the Whitman appreciation camp late in the game, well after college. It was this poem that finally won me over, specifically the line, “I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.” For when I read this line I felt an jolt – the electric moment when you feel that Whitman is speaking directly to you (along with the acknowledging revelation that this moment connects you to all the other readers before you who felt Whitman speaking to “them” as well).

As I mentioned before, I usually think of these poems separately; I’ve never considered them in dialogue. This changed when I considered “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” for the sentence of the day. I re-read the Doty poem, and noticed something that always struck me as odd – Doty’s call directly to the reader, where he confesses, “I’m not proud of this, / I wouldn’t tell just anyone, but I will tell you.”

Doty is hardly an inaccessible poet – but in my reading of his work I’ve found that he rarely addresses the reader directly. So now I’m wondering, was Doty purposefully channeling “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in his poem “Oncoming Train”? Was he thinking about Whitman and the way he speaks directly to us? Is that the inspiration for the confession to the reader? It is not hard to imagine – Doty owes a great debt to Whitman as an influence, and even writes a poem about seeing an apparition of Whitman in Fire to Fire, his selected poems collections.

So while I’ll probably never figure this out (unless I ask Doty specifically), for now on I’ll consider these poems intertwined whenever I see the “crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,” on my subway ride to work.

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