Brooklyn has been the home (in some cases, adoptive or transitionary but still, home) to a myriad number of literary figures. Drawn to it by its vibrancy and multiculturalism, Brooklyn inspires most who visit, and encourages them to put down roots and become a part of its fabric. For poets it’s a natural fit, a place to spin a tale, where all you need is an imagination and a gift of prose.
There are few literary figures that come to mind when you think of Brooklyn, and their connections to poetry and the community can be seen as immersive and far reaching. They encourage you to look at Poetry not just in terms of writing actual verses, but beyond that, through the lens of what it means to think poetically.
Arguably one of the most popular poets with a Brooklyn connection, there is a lot of Whitman love in Brooklyn and at the Brooklyn Public Library. There is a neighborhood library branch named after him and his likeness adorns the entrance at BPL’s Central Library, where he stands amongst other literary figures.
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in Huntington, Long Island. His family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s. At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer’s trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.
Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district decimated the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as a teacher and he continued to teach until 1841. He was not happy in this role and he turned to journalism as a full-time career.
He founded a weekly newspaper, the Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where he was the editor for two years from 1846-1848. Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced firsthand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a “free soil” newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop his unique style of poetry. Whitman would leave and return to Brooklyn numerous times over the course of life; however it would always be a part of his poetic experience. In 1900 he wrote the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry which described his experience and the exhilaration he felt crossing over from Manhattan into Brooklyn.
Excerpt from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":
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,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.
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.
Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington D. C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, a poem he found offensive, and fired the poet.
Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk’s salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. From time to time writers from the US and England sent him “purses” of money so that he could get by. In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he died in 1892.
This Brooklyn transplant was one of the most prolific writers of her time and another poet with a connection to libraries. Born near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 15, 1887, she was raised by her grandfather, a Presbyterian pastor. When he died in 1894, Moore and her family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College and received her BA in 1909. In 1918, Moore and her mother moved to New York City, and in 1921, she became an assistant at the New York Public Library. It was also in 1921 that her first book Poems was published without Moore's permission. Around that time she began to meet other poets, and to contribute to the Dial, a prestigious literary magazine, She went on to become the acting editor of that publication from 1925-1929, which was around the time she moved to 260 Cumberland Street in Fort Greene and made Brooklyn her home.
Her poetic style was characterized as precise, with keen and probing descriptions, and acute observations of people, places, animals, and art. Her poems often reflected her preoccupation with the relationships between the common and the uncommon and advocated discipline, restraint, modesty, and humor. Poet T.S Eliot, describing Moore’s writing style, wrote: “Living, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, for the maintenance of its strength, its subtlety, for the preservation of quality of feeling, which must be kept up in every generation… Miss Moore is, I believe, one of those few who have done the language some service in my lifetime.” This importance of maintaining language and its authenticity is a common theme among Brooklyn poets, and part of what makes their work so special. Moore’s personal style was just as iconic. She had a signature look that frequently consisted of black capes, neckwear, brooches and tricorn hats. She was renowned as “The Poet of Brooklyn.”
Moore was great fan of professional baseball, and in the fall of 1956, Moore became famous overnight with her poem “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese,” a salute to the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series win. The poem was a tribute to the club and appeared on the front page of the Herald-Tribune on the first day of the World Series.
Excerpt from “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reese,”
" 'Hope springs eternal in the Brooklyn breast.' "
And would the Dodger Band in 8, row 1, relax
if they saw the collector of income tax?
Ready with a tune if that should occur:
"Why Not Take All of Me—All of Me, Sir?")
Another series. Round-tripper Duke at bat,
"Four hundred feet from home-plate"; more like that.
A neat bunt, please; a cloud-breaker, a drive
like Jim Gilliam's great big one. Hope's alive.
Homered, flied out, fouled? Our "stylish stout"
so nimble Campanella will have him out.
A-squat in double-headers four hundred times a day,
he says that in a measure the pleasure is the pay:
catcher to pitcher, a nice easy throw
almost as if he'd just told it to go.
Willy Mays should be a Dodger. He should—
a lad for Roger Craig and Clem Labine to elude;
but you have an omen, pennant-winning Peewee,
on which we are looking superstitiously.
Ralph Branca has Preacher Roe's number; recall?
and there's Don Bessent; he can really fire the ball.
as for Gil Hodges, in custody of first—
"He'll do it by himself." Now a specialist versed
in an extension reach far into the box seats—
he lengthens up, he leans, and gloving the ball defeats
expectation by a whisker. The modest star,
irked by one misplay, is no hero by a hair;
in a strikeout slaughter when what could matter more,
he lines a homer to the signboard and has changed the score.
Then for his nineteenth season, a home run—
with four of six runs batted in—Carl Furillo's the big gun;
almost dehorned the foe—has fans dancing in delight.
Jake Pitler and his Playground "get a Night"—
Jake, that hearty man, made heartier by a harrier
who can bat as well as field—Don Demeter.
Shutting them out for nine innings—a hitter too—
Carl Erskine leaves Cimoli nothing to do.
Take off the goat-horns, Dodgers, that egret
which two very fine base-stealers can offset.
You've got plenty: Jackie Robinson
and Campy and big Newk, and Dodgerdom again
watching everything you do. You won last year.
Moore was posthumously inducted into the Flatbush version of Cooperstown's Hall of Fame in 1994 for penning the salute to the home team.
Another example of Moore’s deep roots in Brooklyn is her championing of the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park.
The tree was one of only a few in the world and was planted in Prospect Park in 1872, just a few years after the park opened in 1867. As the decades passed the tree became neglected. A hole in its trunk was filled with concrete and it became infested with vermin. Moore stepped in and became the tree’s savior. She rallied the public and helped start the Friends of Prospect Park, a preservation group whose goal was to promote conservation of the park at large, which had in general fallen into some disrepair. In 1967, she wrote a poem in the Camperdown’s honor:
I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
our crowning curio.
In her will, she established a fund for the support of the Camperdown Elm, and the tree still stands in Prospect Park. This act highlighted yet again her use of poetry to aid the things she loved.
Moore lived in Brooklyn with her mother for 36 years until fears stemming from the changing Fort Greene neighborhood caused her to leave her beloved Brooklyn and move to Greenwich Village. She remained in Greenwich Village until her passing in 1972. She was widely recognized for her work; among her many honors were the National Book Award, National Medal for Literature, an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and the Pulitzer Prize.
The literary figure that speaks to me personally, not as a poet per se, but about the concept of poetry and its overall effect on literature, is Paule Marshall. Like me, she is female and from a Caribbean immigrant background who grew up visiting and working at a library (among other similarities). Marshall, born Valenza Pauline Burke, was smitten with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar so she changed her given name from Pauline to Paule (with a silent e) when she was about 12 or 13. She was a product of Brooklyn, and one of her most popular works Brown Girl, Brownstones spoke directly to her connection through the iconic architecture that is almost synonymous with this borough.
Paule Marshall’s first love was poetry. In her 1983 New York Times piece “From poets in the Kitchen”, Marshall describes her experience growing up in Brooklyn in the company of her mother and her mother’s friends, her exposure to “ordinary speech” and the effect it had on her as a writer.
I grew up among poets. Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives, my mother included -- the basement kitchen of the brownstone house where my family lived was the usual gathering place. Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked while my sister and I sat at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they talked endlessly, passionately, poetically and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them. When people at readings and writers’ conferences asked me who my major influences were, they are sometimes a little disappointed when I don’t immediately name the usual literary giants. True, I am indebted to those writers, white and black, whom I read during my formative years and still read for instruction and pleasure. But they were preceded in my life by another set of giants whom I always acknowledge before all others; the group of women around the table long ago-this is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the word shop of the kitchen.
This experience with language and understanding how what seemed as ordinary can be turned into inspiration shaped Marshall’s literary world and greatly impacted her writing. She continued her literary education at the age of 8 or 9, at the Macon library in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Her impression of the library:
The Macon Street Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library was an imposing half block long edifice of heavy gray masonry, with glass-paneled doors at the front and two tall metal torches symbolizing the light that comes of learning flanking the wide steps outside.
And the staff:
Usually stationed at the top of the steps like the guards outside Buckingham Palace was the custodian, a stern-faced West Indian type who for years, until I was old enough to obtain an adult card, would immediately shoo me with one hand into the Children's Room and with the other threaten me into silence, a finger to his lips. You would have thought he was the chief librarian and not just someone whose job it was to keep the brass polished and the clock wound. I put him in a story called ''Barbados'' years later and had terrible things happen to him at the end.
She drew literary inspiration from all corners, including the real life people turned characters that she was not fond of.
Marshall went on to work as a librarian at New York Public Library, toured with Langston Hughes, the then “Poet Laureate of Black America” in 1965, published several books and became a MacArthur Fellow (among many other similar awards). She remains an indelible part of the literary landscape and of Brooklyn.
This very short list does not even begin to scratch the surface of the impact of poetry and poets of Brooklyn, but it’s a start to a tribute in honor of National Poetry Month. Feel free to chime in on some of your favorite Brooklyn Poets and literary figures in the comments section!