Walt Whitman Poetry


Today in our Journey to Brooklyn we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I could sense the historic atmosphere of the bridge, and I trailed idly away from the group, indulging in quiet reflection as I stood to look out over the East River. Our guide had pointed out the original location of the Brooklyn Ferry where Walt Whitman would have crossed to the island of Manhattan. In his poetry of the city, Whitman constantly makes references to the waterways and as I took in the layout of the area I imagined what it would have looked like, bustling with tall masts and steamships:

“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”

This section from Whitman’s 1900 poem Manahatta illustrates this connection to the waterways, describing the East River as the centre of maritime activities in the city. Today, however, it is no longer the bustling port and the murky grey-green estuary flows unadorned. Flanked on either side lie decrepit warehouses and structures which were once necessary for the burgeoning sea trade. Now, the ‘high growths of iron…uprising toward clear skies’ push closer to the edge of the River, skyscrapers clambering for space, building up the edges so much that the river no longer carves its natural course. I think Whitman would have been unsettled by this modern vista, he wrote so passionate and excitedly about the natural elements of New York City, when he addresses the construction of the city the “Numberless crowded streets” his tone feels darkened as he tries to turn manmade structures into a living organism describing them as “growths of iron” appears almost grotesque.

As I touched upon in my first blog post, I feel a sense of disconnection in cities and often seek out the natural world to stir my creativity. However, I was inspired by Whitman’s ability to celebrate the presence of nature in every creation and in homage to this sentiment I have written about my own experiences of the city and in particular central park;

The sunlight moves quickly across manicured scrubland- sprouting upwards between pillars of human co-existence,
Splashing over stones worn smooth- touched by a thousand hands and scraped by a thousand boots,
It trickles down over sniffling faces who take the brisk scenic route between air-conditioned spaces,
It illuminates the grey and brown overdose of the city, leafless lifeless trees and scavengers scurrying with their loots.
The fatigued light goes out and from the sky falls a delicate crystal – rapidly blanketing everything in sight.
From a fissure in the clouds, the sun bursts out in a final display of blinding glory, dancing across the snow,
The park standing in dazzling beauty as the light twinkles across the covering like glittering stars.

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myself enjoying the remnants of snow in Central Park

 

 

 

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The METs ‘America Today’ and Gatsby

In the 1920’s and 30’s, American psyche and society unified in its ideological projection of a social vision; the American dream, which often suggests that wellbeing and worth are proportionally attached to the value of personal commodities. In this transitional period, the values of society and the trajectory of the American dream warped and changed. In exploring the MET today, we looked at Thomas Hart Benton’s 10 panelled murals ‘America Today’, painted in 1930–31 which theatrically presents this momentous progression in American History. This artwork channelled the complexities of the era in a spontaneous flow, which particularly resonated with my understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, which, despite its portrayal of the dazzling New York party scene, presents the allure and contradiction of the American Dream and the journey from prosperity to loss.

Benton created ‘America Today’ in a dynamic, restlessly figurative style, depicting advancements in technology, architecture and mechanical strength as well as a wild display of risqué social exploits; from prohibition to jazz, capturing the ethos of a transitional era. Heroic depictions of labourers contrast with raunchy scenes of urban life, with the colours and shapes of these exaggerated portrayals guiding these transitions. In the urban scenes, the colours are bright and sporadic, a concoction of diverse energies. The mural begins to transition into hazy pink and purple landscapes to deeper smoky greys and rusty browns of the steel plant and coal mine. The figures become more dynamic, the distinctly fluid shapes of urban life turn stiffly rectilinear in the characterisation of labourers and strength in Industry, the mural then turns angular and geometric in its representation of architecture and technology. America today is a wide-angle look at 1920s America, from opulence to desperate grasping hands; tying together optimism and despondency contributing to the prosperity of the nation to the aspirational pursuit of progress.

In Benton’s mural, we can gain a sense cultural transition; where the America Jazz age of the 1920’s gave way to the Depression. The glitzy characters yielded to a stronger dustier, grittier nation hungering for truth and opportunity. We have a sense of this transition in The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald contrasts West Egg and New York City with the Valley of Ashes situated on along the road between these two grande locations. The valley of Ashes is a dumping ground, the repercussion of unsustainable industry. The valley represents the failure of a self-serving American dream and the moral and social decay of the delusional society.

Both Benton’s ‘America Today’ and Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ give an extraordinary rendering of the American vernacular, capturing the aspirational, even, delusional nature of the American psyche during this time. The works of Benton and Fitzgerald continue to cross expanses of time and cultural difference, begging their audience to question the meaning of prosperity and the trajectory of our aspirations.

 

 

https://players.brightcove.net/911432378001/SkBUku4V_default/index.html?videoId=3765573031001

 

Maya Angelou- Harlem- Womens March

I arrived in Harlem today feeling apprehensive about my presence in this neighbourhood. Guided by the insights of Maya Angelou’s autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, I understood that this area and in particular, the Baptist church service we were about to enter was not a space created in my interests, but nourishes the social and cultural history of its African-American residents, establishing this function through the persistence of racial oppression and exclusion in the United States. Throughout our time in New York, my classmates and I have had many stimulating discussions on the impact of race on cultural identity, social inequality and prejudice, and through this discussion, I became very sensitive to the implications my presence in this community might have. I was troubled at the idea of coming in as a tourist, patronising those that call Harlem home by being entertained by token elements of local culture.

As we entered the gospel service, I was reminded of Angelou’s unpacking of the disconnection between black and white in her conversation with Uncle Wille, asking him “‘why do they hate us so much?”  Uncle Willie replies “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.” This resonated with me after a member of the church openly welcomed us, noting the importance for visitors to experience Harlem; the respect in just getting to know them. I realised at that moment how easy it is to make comments on a place and people from a distance, however, making genuine personal connections shines a truth on this perceived cultural narrative. The gospel service had a profound impact on my understanding of Angelou’s autobiography, and the identity of the Harlem community. Just like the religious scenes described by Angelou, the Minister invited the congregation to “speak in tongues” “dance wildly” and “sing praise” I understood that this community was a sanctuary. This community enabled people who are so often discriminated against to find a moment of release from a world where they spend so much energy considering every step. The identity of the community was not the place, but the people, their connections and relationships. I deeply felt this sense of community in attending the Women’s March on NYC the day before, finding solidarity with the people around me as we protested against inequality. Here is a short exert about my experience:

I pushed to the edge of the fence, my knuckles turning white as I gripped the railing. An endless procession of people passed slowly but determinedly, weaving between one another. Their voices rose up inside of me until the need to join them sat like a heavy knot in my throat. The crowd grew louder and rowdier, chanting and stabbing hundreds of middle fingers towards the heavens. Hand-made signs changed the skyline of New York City, meticulous maps guiding the soul across symbols of self-expression. I needed to join them. Somehow I managed to manoeuvre my awkward body into a less than graceful leap, flinging myself over the barrier and into the oncoming wave of bodies. I stood for a moment, waiting to be reprimanded for my actions until the inherent command to march onwards took over, and I felt the communal song beckon me. You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking. Among me were people of all generations, genders and origins, representing diverse causes but reflecting a fatigue in the necessity of protest. As we continued, we were able to find strength and fortitude in the strength and fortitude of others. Our cries became unified, and every howl and every step cleansed our spirit and re-energised the essential being. Feelings of solidarity aren’t inconsequential or fruitless. It inspires and validates our cause, it centres us, it grabs your hand and pulls you back out of the dark abyss you’ve been hurtling into. I started the march in despair and ended it feeling tougher, more present, more unified.

 

Viola Davis Speaks about Diversity at The Women’s march
Halseys moving poem at the New York Women’s March

 

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My image from the Women’s March