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On the Beach Alone at Night: Meshell Ndegeocello Reads Walt Whitman’s Ode to the Interconnectedness of Life

A song of praise for “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist… all lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future.”

On the Beach Alone at Night: Meshell Ndegeocello Reads Walt Whitman’s Ode to the Interconnectedness of Life

We live our lives by tidal forces — vast oceanic waves of change and chance sweeping us together, stranding us apart, washing over us with their all-subsuming totality of feeling, only to retreat and then begin anew before we have fully regained our breath and our footing. What buoys us is the awareness that, however distant and desolate the shore might appear, however dark and cold the waters of the night, there are other bodies swimming these waves, others so different yet so kindred — life itself swimming itself alive, as it did long ago in the primordial oceans that gave us feet and lungs and consciousness to live by. James Baldwin hinted at this in one of his least known and most beautiful meditations: “The sea rises, the light fails… The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Water might well be the supreme meaning-making element of poets and poets may well be the original water nymphs — poets in the broadest Baldwinian sense of artists in any medium, makers of various life-rafts, who surface the deepest truth about us and mirror it back to us in their art.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With his deep-seeing poetic consciousness shaped by the spare solemn beaches of his native Long Island, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) always retained a profound relationship to the water, to its symbolism and its actuality. Throughout his poetry, he celebrated the ocean as the “old mother” of life. He cherished winter beaches as pastures for creativity. He imagined the living wonders of “the world below the brine” long before Rachel Carson invited the human imagination into the living reality of the marine world for the very first time, a world then more mysterious than the Moon. His daily ferry commute across New York’s slender tidal estuary became one of the profoundest and most penetrating poems ever composed.

It was in the solitude of the beach and the solitude of the night that Whitman felt most connected to the life of this world and the life of the universe — a transcendent sense of interleaving, which he reverenced in his poem “On the Beach Alone at Night.” At an intimate edition of The Universe in Verse I hosted for his bicentennial, the poem came alive in a singsong benediction of a reading by musician extraordinaire, Baldwin-champion, and poet of song and spirit Meshell Ndegeocello, accompanied by cellist Dave Eggar and guitarist Chris Bruce, inside a deconsecrated white chapel Whitman passed countless times on the Brooklyn ferry, newly transformed into a living artwork and sanctuary for contemplation by Governors Island artist-in-residence Shantell Martin. Words from this poem fomented the mission manifesto of the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory, just across the water from the chapel.

by Walt Whitman

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

Join me in supporting Governors Island’s wonderful public programming, green space, and other pastures for creativity with a donation and savor another highlight of this Whitman-themed miniature Universe in Verse on the island — poet Sarah Kay bridging Whitman’s astronomy with the astronaut’s lament — then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living, what makes a great person, actionable optimism as a force of resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your soul.


Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

“The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.”

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Twenty-four centuries after Pythagoras contemplated the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom as he coined the word philosopher to mean “lover of wisdom,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) contemplated the meaning of personhood and the measure of wisdom as he revolutionized the word poet to stand for “lover of life.”

Tucked toward the end of his ever-foliating Leaves of Grass is what might be his most musical poem — a sweeping thirteen-page symphony of thought and feeling and rhythm in language, undulating across three distinct thematic movements: the carefree optimism of embarking upon a new path; the transcendent self-discovery in traversing new landscapes of beauty and possibility; and the transcendence of the self in connecting with something larger than oneself: nature, time and space, love. Whitman himself considered it his “mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life” and “a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining.”

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For his remaining decades, Whitman lived in it and with it for, changing its title from the humble “Poem of the Road” in the first 1856 edition to the wanderlustful “Song of the Open Road” in 1867, fine-tuning the verses again and again, mapping the poem’s 224 lines into fifteen numbered sections by the final edition in the winter of his life.

The second movement of the lyric symphony peaks at the sixth section, erupting with Whitman’s most direct and life-tested hypothesis about what makes a great person and what wisdom really means. It augurs his hard-earned wisdom on what makes life worth living, at which he would arrive half a lifetime later while recovering from a paralytic stroke. It echoes the famous prose-meditation on the key to a vibrant and rewarding life, with which he introduced Leaves of Grass as a young man. It hums, surefooted and sonorous, as a kind of blessing song for the road of life.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Complement with Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and women’s centrality to democracy, then revisit a beautiful reading from his furthest-seeing, deepest-feeling poem.


Poet, Philosopher, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Advocate Edward Carpenter’s Moving Love Letter of Gratitude to Walt Whitman

“You have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature.”

Poet, Philosopher, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Advocate Edward Carpenter’s Moving Love Letter of Gratitude to Walt Whitman

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin observed as he reflected on same-sex love and the courage to “go the way your blood beats” in his most personal interview. The danger, of course, is exponentially greater for those of us whose loves live outside the heteronormative mold, and it increases exponentially as we turn history’s dial back toward the countless generations who paid for our freedom with theirs — tried like Radclyffe Hall or jailed like Oscar Wilde or assassinated like Harvey Milk or obliquely murdered by the government like Alan Turing or, like Emily Dickinson, like Hans Christian Andersen, dying the slow death of living without the possibility of making their deepest love known in anything less coded than fairy tales and verse.

In the epochs before the term “LGBT” came into use, before the radical notion that taking “Pride” in it could replace living with shame about it, hardly any public voice has emboldened more hearts to love whom they love than Walt Whitman in his courageous, uncoded verses celebrating the freedom of the heart.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

One dawning July morning in 1870, at the insomniac peal of 4 A.M. — which Baldwin considered the hour of despair, reckoning, and self-redemption — a young English man who would become the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) picked up his pen and his courage, and composed an extraordinary letter to Walt Whitman. Carpenter was twenty-five, Whitman fifty-one.

By then, a decade after the release of his epoch-making Leaves of Grass, the American poet was accustomed to adoring letters from strangers — none more beautiful than Anne Gilchrist’s love letters to him, none more surprising than Bram Stoker’s. Though Carpenter’s was laced with genuine artistic admiration and kinship of spirit, it was not a love letter — it was a letter of gratitude, stirring for its splendor of expression and doubly stirring for the palpable soul-depth of its sentiment.

Whitman found the letter, later quoted in Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (public library), to be “beautiful, like a confession.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and fellowship.

At the time, Carpenter was working as a curate for the Church of England after graduating as a theologian from Trinity Hall two years earlier. After telling Whitman that he is leaving the stagnancy of Cambridge to travel north and lecture to working-class men and women, driven by the sense that they are longing “to lay hold of something with a real grasp,” Carpenter commends the poet for his unselfconscious celebration of working-class masculinity. He then relays that the day before, “a young workman with the old divine light in his eyes” had come to his door, and Carpenter had allowed himself to feel overcome by unselfconscious desire; the encounter had inspired him to thank Whitman for the courage to fully inhabit his love of other men. He writes:

You have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. (—And others thank you though they do not say so). For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.

Writing in an era when same-sex love was not only rejected but criminalized, Carpenter adds ruefully:

It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day… At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible — will be, has been, is even now somewhere — even though we find it not.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Across the Atlantic, across the cultural and generational abyss, Carpenter and Whitman met seven years later and remained in lifelong correspondence. Carpenter left the church to become a lecturer in astronomy and the music of ancient Greece, a pioneering LGBT rights activist, a correspondent of Gandhi’s, and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.” After returning from India in 1891, Carpenter met the love of his life — a younger working-class man, who became his partner for the rest of his life. The relationship inspired Carpenter to write beautiful works of uncommon insight into the dangers and triumphs of the heart, any heart — what he called “the drama of love and death.”

Complement with Albert Camus’s magnificent letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher, penned shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, then revisit Carpenter on how freedom strengthens togetherness in long-term relationships and Whitman’s deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem.


Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.


Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.


What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me


It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.


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