Thoughts on Whitman

For a period of about a year when I lived in Brooklyn, I had the fortunate spin on life of actually working in my neighborhood. Every day I would wake up and walk about a mile down Washington Avenue through Clinton Hill to a little spa where I bartended. At the time I certainly didn’t feel it was a splendor, but in retrospect, it was the happiest I think I ever was in New York. Largely, because I spent all of my time outside of it—or the main hull of it anyway.
I was quickly promoted to the bar manager at the spa and filled my position usually 5 or 6 days of the week—10 hours a day. I didn’t mind it, though, because I had few customers, I was paid more than minimum wage, and I was surrounded by steamy tranquility 80% of my workday. When I’d get off work I’d often go into the changing room and put on a swimsuit to sit in the Jacuzzi with at glass of wine before walking the mile home. It was peaceful, amidst the chaos of the rest of the city. I was lonely, which plagued me greatly at the time, but I was happy.
Often, on my walks to work, I’d stroll past the house that Walt Whitman once lived in. It was unassuming—a little shantyish really. It had few windows, dingy beige siding, and dangling leftover Christmas lights that made it perpetually look like the Grinch had just taken off with all the toys. Although it was listed on the historical registry, there wasn’t a sign outside or anything to indicate that anyone had ever lived there except for working class minorities or disheveled hipsters.
Whitman’s house was just off Myrtle Avenue and at the end of most everything in Clinton Hill/Fort Greene. It’s the last block before the freeway’s overriding presence consumes you and warehouses are the only buildings standing. I wondered what it was like in Whitman’s time, and imagined that writing Leaves of Grass there would be unnerving with freeway traffic sailing by.
I wondered how it could possibly be that parts of that amazing book of poetry were conceived of in such a place. I know there was no freeway then, of course. But I wondered still if that little pocket of Brooklyn felt like the wilderness from the bustle of New York like it somehow did for me.
Many years before, when I was studying acting in New Jersey, we were required to find a singular poem that spoke to us to recite for our speech and voice finals after our first year of graduate school. It had been a harrowing year—one of the more redefining in my life—and through the discombobulating effects of moving from the south to the north, studying at one of the most intimidating schools I’d ever known, and going through a marriage and a divorce, I found what felt was the one poem that spoke to me.
It still does. And, just like my favorite songs and my favorite moments in life, it has become a part of who I am. Just as much as those tranquil days strolling past Walt Whitman’s house in Brooklyn. And just like those chaotic moments when I’d surely lost my mind.
Now, thousands of miles away and living a life that feels 180 degrees in the opposite direction, I feel more hope, tranquility, and joy in this poem than I ever felt before, because I know that those gossamer threads did, in fact, finally land…

A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I marked where on a little promontory it stood, isolated;
Marked how, to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

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