Whitman in canoes on the Gowanus at dawn
Walt Whitman. Recited at dawn. In canoes. As long as your alarm clock works, it’s magic.
The Gowanus Canal — poisoned waters and all — became a place of pure poetry on Wednesday.
Devoted Whitmanites paddled out on the canal (which is so polluted it’s a federal Superfund cleanup site) to declaim passages from his revolutionary book “Leaves of Grass” at sunrise.
The event, called “Whitman in Canoes on the Gowanus at Dawn,” also involved Whitman fans who lacked faith in their own athletic skills. They stood on the Carroll Street Bridge to listen to the readings.
This city landmark is made of wood planks and was built in the late 1880s, while Whitman was alive.
I stood with the crew on the historic bridge. As we waited, clouds the color of bruises hung overhead. The greenish canal was calm. Its surface was undisturbed by a school of tiny fish swimming below its surface.
At 7:40 a.m., a flotilla of orange canoes glided toward us and gathered beneath the bridge.
Brad Vogel, the captain of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, began the readings by saying they were drawn from a grouping of poems in “Leaves of Grass” known as the Sea-Drift cluster.
The aquatic theme made perfect sense, given the watery setting.
The poem Vogel read, “The World Below the Brine,” was a shout-out to the sea and all the living things in it — from “sea lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds” to “the leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray.”
The group on the Carroll Street Bridge listened to the readings with rapt attention. The sun came out and illuminated the readers’ faces.
Whitman’s writing is full of drama and passion. The Sea-Drift poems are no exception.
“Tears! tears! tears! In the night, in solitude, tears,” one of the readers exclaimed.
Two women read “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” as a duet. It’s a moving reminiscence about a boyhood experience that shaped Whitman as a poet.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club was in charge of Wednesday’s outdoor literary experience, which focused on Whitman because this year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.
It was one of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s Bookend Events, which take place throughout the five boroughs before or after the actual Festival Day, which is Sunday, Sept. 22.
Whitman, who is widely considered to be America’s greatest poet, was the Eagle’s editor in the 1840s.
Vogel is a member of the Walt Whitman Initiative. The group is part of a coalition that has been campaigning to win city landmark designation for Clinton Hill’s 99 Ryerson St. — the only New York City house where Whitman lived that’s still standing.
Whitman and his family were living in the modest 1850s wood-frame Italianate home when he published the first version of “Leaves of Grass.”
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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