I am the daughter of manifest destiny,
Spawned by the Brooklyn Bridge
A BROOKLYN STATE OF MIND, continued: what is Brooklyn to you, Poetry Slow Down community, on the theme of slowing down our hurried minds with poetry: Is Brooklyn, USA, the opposite of poetry to you, or its apotheosis? You’re with me here, wondering about how poetry makes sense of a place, or creates sense of value of place, the meaning we give to the place we live in, or call home, in our minds . . . There is something about Brooklyn, that takes us into the heart of how poetry makes a place live, how poets work the soil, and to me now, the Manhattan-Brooklyn relation is revelation at the heart of the nation’s heart and mind: you can’t get there from here, yet we live parallel and inextricably related lives, in the lost-country and the city, a psychological chasm, uncrossable, and then I’m thinking, wait, “Crossing Brookyn Ferry,” that great poem of Whitman’s, wait, hold on here, the setting and theme of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman . . . and wait . . . Feynman was here . . . wait, Woody Allen . . . . Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel whose title was always a little ominous to me: a place where it is a miracle that a tree grows? Land laid waste? And speaking of ominous, Thomas Wolfe’s” Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” so . . . this psychic ghost town with its one tree, and . . .then, all the iconography of Coney Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Dodgers (ya bums!). So, last week we talked about the poetry of Brooklyn, and Marianne Moore’s paean (pee-en, expression of joy or praise, as opposed to pain in, expression of suffering), to the Brooklyn-ya-bums Dodgers, and you know what, we ran out of time, I had material for . . ten shows! And in the process of thinking about the show, as an outsider, a foreigner, an anthropologist of poetry, I mean, I grew up as far away as possible, out west, and you don’t stop until you reach that Pacific Ocean, 3000 miles away, where the Dodgers had dodged, LA, I told you when I grew up it was always the Brooklyn Dodgers in our house, a fact I never thought about, and as I was thinking about Brooklyn with you, and then Ferlingetti’s autobiography—he the San Fransisco City Lights man, yet, he places himself back in Brooklyn in his mind—his Coney Island of the Mind makes Brooklyn the center of his artistic awakening, I realized this past week that I, too, have a poem about my own artistic awakening, and identity, and it is a Brooklyn poem: I imagined my own past in terms of this Brooklyn-Manhattan nexus, and the Huck in me, needing to light out (“where can you go when the territory has all been taken? I had to go west”) . . . I couldn’t believe it when I remembered the original opening lines:
I am the daughter of Manifest Destiny,
Spawned by the Brooklyn Bridge.
I had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge, this was something in history, like George Washington’s cherry tree, some iconic symbol. Remember, I’m born under the Hollywood sign, my early life was in mountains overlooking the Pacific, the nearest store was two miles away and my mother, staying home with us kids, didn’t have a car: she didn’t drive—of course—now I see, this story shaping . . . she was from Manhattan . . . she didn’t need a car. My father was living in Brooklyn, he was born in Brooklyn, and he had a car. I remember a story they told us once, over a campfire in the Sierras, about their past, which they never really talked about except in New Yorkisms we took for granted as the eccentric vocab of our parents, these metaphoric ways of talking about the world that made no sense in our lives, what is this, grand central station? (we didn’t even know what that was, and had never been on a train); if that happens I’ll kiss your ass in Macy’s window, whoever Macy was . . . well, when my parents met on a photographers hike in New Jersey, my father took my mother’s arm and never let go. He drove her home. The problem was, she had never been in a car, and had never been in her neighborhood on city streets. She always took the subway. So she could not recognize where she lived. They drove round and round.
Of course she did not drive, this New York girl, so there we were stranded in this redwood house, surrounded by cactus, two stories of glass windows looking at mountain and sea, and when my grandmother from New York came to visit, she said, My God, my God, where are all the people? She stopped a car on our street and begged the driver to take her back to the airport so she could return to her Joey, my rascal uncle in New York. I’ll share this poem with you, called “At Last, Kissed in Macy’s Window”—where our country’s manifest destiny and my manifest destiny are “bridged.” We’ll hear about the Roeblings, Hart Crane’s 1930 “The Bridge” (countering T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, “so damned dead”), Amy Clampitt’s whirling poems on motion, vibrant Brooklyn in contemporary poems, and the way Brooklyn is at the center of tragic and comic visions of America by its greatest playwrights, film-makers, and epic poets, from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (“Yank,” of course, is from Brooklyn), to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to Herb Gardner’s 1000 Clowns. We’ll hear Whitman’s Brooklyn voice, literally, and his heir in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and W.S. Merwin’s poem of thanks, revealing the way the Brooklyn aesthetic mourns “the gone world” and nature, the price of progress in urban development. As we explore the meaning of Brooklyn as everyone’s hometown, where we start from and end up, we’ll continue our series on the impact of how poets render our world and the laws and policies we construct to save or restore it or redeem it—and ourselves. Next week I’ll be reporting live to you from Alaska, and while I don’t think I’ll remember a family history, or make the case for Alaska as core to our country’s consciousness and conscience (well, maybe), prepare for joyous poems of aurora borealis, arctic life, snow and ice, cranes, fragile and mighty terrain and spirits. Meanwhile, the country’s east-west trajectory is played out in the poetry of Brooklyn, Part Two, in which I have come to face my ancestral past, along with an entire curriculum of America’s writers and creative minds, who all seem to be from Brooklyn, or hail from there, or straddle the Bridge between “the twin cities,” live in both at once, or live the tension, the passage, in our minds, not the destination of Manhattan, but the humble place we actually live, have pride in, and bemoan (and don’t forget the Dodgers-ya-bums!).
© Barbara Mossberg 2011
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm—That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, and hello, this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, welcoming you to the Poetry Slow Down, KRXA 540’s Think for Yourself radio, and enthusiasm has been in the air. I’ve been researching poetry’s role in public life in Washington, D.C., home of a great and enthusiastic lover, Walt Whitman, imaginative lover of our whole cosmos, and all its details and warts–to be loved by Whitman is to be loved for oneself totally, and on the path of poetic citizenship I’ve traveled to the roots of Whitman’s visionary heart, New York, correction, Brooklyn, Walt Whitman’s stomping grounds . . . Brooklyn, where he was editor of The Brooklyn Eagle. His reading of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, The Bible, filtered through Brooklyn became a barbaric yawp, Brooklyese, an American voice. So we’re heading east, over the 59th Street Bridge, our show’s theme song by Paul Simon, slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last, just kickin’ down the cobblestones, look at the fun and feeling groovy. . . we’re looking at the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. Our show today and next week is about the poetry of Brooklyn, a quintessential hard-core hard-hat tough-mind hot-heart identity that generates literary art and consciousness. . . think, Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (its Broadway birthday was this past week and so is the anniversary of his death), Hart Crane’s epic The Bridge, think, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” Thomas Wolfe, think, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, think the Dodgers, YA BUMS!, think the Brooklyn Bridge, and yes, it’s a story of poetry (including Goethe), and my dad, let’s not forget this poet, working at Charles Pfizer in Brooklyn, making penicillin . . . and more! Marianne Moore (huge Dodger fan)! And Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind, I know, I know! Brooklyn is never far from his mind. Brooklyn, the Musical, on Broadway! Neil Simon, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby’s valley of ashes and Robert Moses and the Brooklyn Ash Company and . . . . How does poetry help us see and experience and value and engage our landscape—and change it, even save it, even bring it back to life? In what ways is Brooklyn the soul of and central to American culture? Beer, pizza, film! Last Exit to Brooklyn, Moonstruck, Spike Lee’s Crooklyn . . . what is its meaning to so many writers, who live here in their imaginations, as an east, a fallen or vanished West, and wait, you have poems on Brooklyn, yes, you do, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and now I remember, so do I, it’s where we all came of age as poetic conciousnesses. . . so, let’s get a move on, let’s get a groove(y) on, let’s cross Brooklyn Ferry with our first commuter poet Walt Whitman, and is there a more enthusiastic commuter, taking Henry James’ advice, always try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost? He’s excited, he’s ebullient, he’s exhilarated, he’s enthusiastic, he’s exclaiming, and you’re there—I’m there, we’re all there, Team Whitman, his frolic companions, frolic on, river, drench us with splendor! This show and next week’s, we’ll explore the meaning of Brooklyn as iconic landscape, comic, tragic, resilient, redemptive. Reporting live with news we need to live, from Brooklyn, crossing that bridge when we come to it, I’m Barbara Mossberg, join me and Walt! He’s our guide, saying slow down, inviting us to loaf and take our ease, our Brooklynese!
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”–Gertrude Stein.
And so we’re going to take a lot of time, an hour today, for our Poetry Slow Down, considering how Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song”, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust, are giving us a wake-up call about being in bed, on the sidelines, as the mind’s frontlines, taking our time, taking time out, making time count, recovering lost time, and the neuroscience of genius that poetry illuminates. And yes, it’s the Superbowl, speaking of time out and taking time out, we hear a Proustian analysis of football and Stein on football (and her reply to a snarky reporter, Snap!–she has her finger on the pulse), and poems on football by Lewis Jenkins, Billy Collins, A.E. Housman, Howard Nemerov, and poems about being in and watching the game (including Super Bowl) by Rumi and Whitman, and recovering wasted time through poetry by your host, me, Dr. B (transforming drudgery time into happiness, by slowing down and conceiving and writing the poem: “I am happy/I take my time”).
“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”–Marcel Proust. We consider that if we stop time, we can look around and see what’s here and not be blinded by the blur, the cacophony, the chaos: we can see the detail, we can pay attention keenly, and wake up; we can discern beauty, and in this timeless state we can find happiness (from the word “hap,” as in happen), occurring when we slow down, do nothing, really nothing, genius time, says Stein, Ein-stein, Gertrude Stein. That’s our show theme, challenged to bring February’s birthday genius Gertrude Stein in alliance with Superbowl Sunday. And speaking of slowing down, stopping the clock:
I ran out of TIME! I thought I had more! So I took my time! and then ran out! I was going to end telling about a UC study of neuroscience claiming wisdom is the slowing down of the brain in old age! In a new study researchers found wisdom increases with age and carries on even after occurrence of brain damage like stroke. Well, poetry is difficult, as Dr. Williams says, because it is saying things in a different way that we are not in the habit of (as Gertrude Stein says in her analogy to football). But when we read it, even if struggling and wondering, as in a football game, all the things going on all at once, where to look–it’s a time out, it’s time lost, it’s making time, it’s making time up, and maybe it is written by geniuses, and certainly our authors would tell us that, not just Stein posing as her lover Alice B. Toklas (she also came out–Stein, I mean–and wrote, What Is Genius?, using herself as a model, natch), and read by the geniuses and the wise–You! Poetry Slow Down! So we’ll speak of this anon, but right now it’s time to stop the clock! Let’s enjoy the super Bowl, on the screen, and in the sky, and heat up with Rumi’s vision for next week’s show on love, live from the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and love words from presidents and Whitman and Neruda, and speaking of love, I have loved being with you as we’ve loafed and invited our ease a la Whitman, a la Proust, a la Paul Simon, a la Gertrude Stein, as we swing in the hammock, and on the stars, do nothing really nothing–nourishing genius. Enjoy!–which as Proust said, is the whole point, in so many (more) words (and we need them all).
© Barbara Mossberg 2011