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Poetry of the City with Walt Whitman

In a six-part series of blog posts, Rigoberto González explores poetry of the city: “As the bittersweet symbol of order and chaos, progress and decay, community and overcrowding, the city is both beacon and demon—a landscape of possibility where dreams are born and where dreams transform, or die. The poems in this series offer a range of poetic representations of the city and civilization, and how over the centuries this man-made space continues to mirror human joy and anxiety. These poems help us understand the powers and weaknesses of the city (and within ourselves), and how the dance between people and the places they inhabit produces the greatest archive of memory, history and story.”

This week Rigoberto González looks at a poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892).

Mannahatta (1867)

I 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;
Tides 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 
The winter snows, the sleigh-bells—the broken ice in the river, 
   passing along, up or down, with the flood-tide or ebb-
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
A million peoplemanners free and superbopen voiceshos- 
   pitalitythe 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, with-
   out I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!

—Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass, D. McKay, 1900

The “aboriginal name” Whitman alludes to in the second line refers to the Lenni Lenape name for the island, which means “land of many hills.” An arresting revelation given that those hills have since been razed to make room for a very different landscape, one that Whitman sees in the shape of the name “Mannahatta”—a skyline made of iron and cement. What follows is not a grievance over the loss of the natural landscape but rather a celebration, an embrace of the modern and industrial identity of the place he calls home. Hence that punctuated cry of ecstasy toward the end of the poem: “my city!”

After that initial couplet, the rest of the poem reads as one extended, breathless, run-on sentence. Its expansive and inclusive terrain, what scholars have termed Whitmanesque, mirrors the dynamic Manhattan of the post-Civil War era, when immigration into the city (“fifteen or twenty thousand in a week”), particularly from Europe, intensified. The growth of its populations, its professions, its functions, and its ambitions is well-represented in this urban aria that sings in praise of energy and momentum: “The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business—the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers—the river-streets.” Shrewd readers will also note that the poem jumps from summer to winter, thrusting the pace of this tour of the city forward even faster.

Underscoring the newfound opportunities and liberties of the city, which welcomes and embraces all, the line “The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!” cleverly compares the marked difference between the North and the South. Whitman lived through both the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras of American history, and Leaves of Grass includes African Americans as part of a multiracial fabric of what he considered an ideal democracy. And what more egalitarian space than an immigrant city like New York?

Whitman’s speaker does not get lost among the “numberless crowded streets,” “countless masts,” and “a million people”; he is not swallowed up by the whirlpool. Rather, he is propelled upward, just as he has singled out the individual parts that make the whole, as if proclaiming himself, not leader or follower, not keystone or cog, but one more necessary voice in the electrifying chorus that keeps the city vibrant and alive.

This blog post is based on a talk that Gonzalez gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Rigoberto González is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His ten books of prose include two bilingual children’s books, the three young adult novels in the Mariposa Club series, the novel Crossing Vines, the story collection Men Without Bliss, and three books of nonfiction, including Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He also edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and Alurista’s new and selected volume Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology. Currently, he is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, and the inaugural Stan Rubin Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop. In 2015, he received The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. As of 2016, he serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times.

Posted In: Close Readings