Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States. Photo: Jaden Satenstein
Due to unfortunate weather circumstances, the Poet’s House 24th annual Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge featured a lot less walking than usual, but still treated guests to a wealth of powerful, New York-inspired poetry on Monday, June 10.
The Poetry Walk is an annual benefit for the non-profit organization Poet’s House, which serves the New York community through it’s free, extensive poetry library downtown at 10 River Terrace. The event typically features a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, during which renowned poets read famous works about New York City, many of which center on the bridge itself.
Though the poems and the poets reading them change every year, the walk always concludes with a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in front of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, followed by a celebratory dinner in Brooklyn, during which participating poets read their own work.
However, Poet’s House had to break from tradition this year due to heavy rain, cancelling the walk itself and hosting the event in its entirety at an indoor space in DUMBO.A Change in the Weather
“This is one of the few times we’ve had to move to the rain plan,” Poet’s House executive director Lee Briccetti said, “We’ve had really good luck in almost 25 years.”
Still, poets and attendees alike agreed that the event derives its magic from the poetry itself, which was read throughout the dinner. In addition to Whitman’s piece, which was read by all five participating poets, each reading a section, much of the poetry evoked the spirit of the Brooklyn Bridge, even though it could not be read whilst walking across it.
In addition to reading his own poem, “Shirt,” former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky decided to share early 20th century poet Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.”
“It was my first time participating,” Pinsky said. “I’ve heard a lot about it over the years. I know it’s been a wonderful occasion. And, though I was disappointed we couldn’t walk over the bridge, it was great to celebrate Hart Crane and Walt Whitman.”Sounds of the City
Briccetti noted the importance of the poetry being inspired by New York, as it attracts a wide range of people who appreciate the sentiments of the work even if they don’t always connect to poetry.
“The bridge walk has just grown in size,” Briccetti said. “It’s an event that people know because it’s so city centric. I think people who may not self-identify as being poetry lovers love this event because it’s the places of New York that they love and the words that celebrate them.”
The 2017 Walt Whitman Award-winning poet and Brooklyn resident Jenny Xie knew exactly what poems she wanted to share when she was invited to participate in the event.
In addition to Audre Lorde’s “Bridge Through My Window,” Xie read her original piece “Chinatown Diptych,” which is about the neighborhood she first lived in when she moved to New York City. Xie was excited to read the poem due to the influence that the city itself has had on her work and because she actually wrote it at Poet’s House.
“I love the diversity and the energy of the city,” Xie said. “Just walking the sidewalk any time of day you just soak in so many sounds and voices and languages. And as a poet, because language and sound and rhythm figure so heavily into my work, that’s something that really energizes me and inspires me as a writer.”
The inspiration Xie takes from the “sounds and voices and languages” of New York was evident when she read “Chinatown Diptych,” which includes the line, “Perched above these streets with whom I share verbs and adjectives.”A Poetry Sanctuary
Poet and Brooklyn College professor Rosamond S. King, who also read at the event, emphasized the impact that the variety of cultures and experiences in New York has had on her poetry. “New York City affects my work in part because it’s a city of immigrants,” King said. “I’m a child of immigrants, and so I experience New York both as an American but also as someone who has connections to other places and who can have connections to places that I’ve never even been ... It’s as though you can travel a bit and learn about so many different cultures while you’re in the city, and I think that that inflects your work.”
This exposure to culture is something that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo, who read work by James Schuyler at the dinner, said is embodied by Poet’s House’s library. He expressed gratitude to the organization for providing him the opportunity to explore different types of writing from around the world.
“Poet’s House is a community,” Pardlo said. “We heard the word ‘sanctuary’ over and over again tonight, and I think it’s a sanctuary in the sense that, it’s been said already too, so many different kinds of poetry can coexist in one place… There is no sense of prioritizing any kind of poetry over another. I think that was a really important condition in my own development as a poet.”Honoring Service
Acclaimed poet Anne Waldman, who co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics along with famous beat-poet Allen Ginsberg, received the Elizabeth Kray Award. Poet’s House bestows the award, named for the late co-founder of the organization, biennially to poets who embody her spirit and service to poetry.
“It means a lot,” Waldman said about receiving the award, expressing her appreciation for Poet’s House and other organizations that “...build community and create these spaces that are available for poets of all kinds from all over, economic backgrounds, people with or without education that can be offered this space.”Poetry and the People
All five poets praised the work of Poet’s House, which strives to provide the public with opportunities to experience the world of poetry through programs such as workshops, fellowships and free readings. “A lot of people are maybe afraid and they don’t think they are going to like poetry, but once they experience it they are expanded and they find something that they can take for their life’s journey,” Briccetti said. “If you make it possible for people to bump into it and have pleasure, they really do like it. So a lot of our work is about trying to create initiatives that will help people bump into poetry with pleasure and understanding.”A Star-Studded Evening
The evening concluded with a surprise visit from Golden Globe-winning actor and longtime Poet’s House patron Bill Murray, who has participated in the walk in years past. Murray read a variety of works, including Ted Berrigan’s “Whitman in Black,” which offered a satisfying ending to an evening that opened with a reading of Whitman’s work.
To Briccetti, who has served as Poet’s House Executive Director for 30 years and overseen every Poetry Walk, the power of poets reading Whitman’s words every year transcends time and, especially this year due to the last minute location change, space.
“It’s really about poets communicating and generations communicating through time and space,” Briccetti said. “That’s where the mysterious, mystical center of the bridge walk is. Hearing Walt Whitman say, ‘People of the future I am with you,’ and feeling that you have traveled through time and you’re meeting him in some way. That is the thing that stays the same.”