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.
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.
ON THE BEACH ALONE AT NIGHT
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.