“What is it then between us?”
Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
To concerned observers of American life, the space between us, as individuals and as citizens, has rarely seemed more noticeable or less navigable. Americans have, for some time, inhabited two contrasting political realities, and those ideological divisions have been exacerbated by the physical—and, consequently, emotional—distance that the coronavirus pandemic has forced on us. Although vaccines have brought some measure of optimism of late, the long-term effects of the pandemic on daily life, from our economic and psychological well-being in the face of immense loss to the ways we interact with one another going forward, are just coming into view. Yet what is perhaps most striking is how little a once-in-a-century global pandemic seems to have reminded us of what it is we share with one another, from our common physical frailty to the mental and emotional toll that forced isolation has exacted from virtually everyone.
COVID has, of course, had a shockingly disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, making it clear how much we still do not have in common. Yet conversations about precisely what we should do about that or about what human beings might need not only to survive day to day but to live some semblance of a fully human existence have often been derailed by our contrasting visions of reality and what appears to be our collective inability to take opposing viewpoints seriously. An unexamined link between the pandemic and the broader struggles liberal democracy is currently facing therefore concerns the notion of separation—how much can human beings really endure? How much is necessary for individuals to be just that—individuals—without tearing apart the fabric of collective existence? These are some of the questions at the core of both our epidemiological and our civic woes. Yet rather than using this devastating, world-historical event to enlarge our conceptions of both humanity and our fellow citizens and think through the dynamics of separation and connection, both in the pandemic and in democratic life more broadly, we appear to have secluded ourselves from one another not just physically, but intellectually and imaginatively.
As a humanities professor, I have been made keenly aware of these various forms of separation as I stared daily at the grid of human faces arranged in my Zoom interface. Our faces (and our cats) appeared on our laptop screens together and we could talk to one another, but so much of the rich, if subtle, textures of face-to-face human interaction had vanished. What’s more, I have grown increasingly worried that my attempts to help students cultivate the habits of mind and forms of patient attention that are necessary for engaging the world’s inherent complexity are being lost on a generation of students who, reflecting the strikingly dualistic world we have created for them, might not be particularly interested in that complexity. Many of them now arrive at college convinced, as Harriet Beecher Stowe once phrased it, that they already “feel right” on issues of moral and political import. If that’s the case, then what, from a humanistic perspective, is there left to learn?
Quite a lot, I want to suggest, for the kind of knowledge that a humanistic education helps to cultivate is a form of what Simon Blackburn calls ethical knowledge, which is less about knowing that something is the case and more about knowing how—how to attend to the particulars of a situation, how to search out the complexities and ambiguities of the ideals we embrace, how to interact and engage with others as we synthesize these various pieces of information in order to survey and judge our shared world. Such knowledge is always inherently difficult to cultivate, but remote learning—and the patent absence of community that follows from it—have compounded those challenges. One of the ways I have tried to combat these struggles is by turning to literary works, particularly works of poetry, that deal directly with the nature of separation and connection. Some of this is practical—many of the poems are short and thus easier for overworked and emotionally spent students (and professors) to engage with—but it has also allowed us to put our current experiences with solitude and loneliness into conversation with the longer history of human experience and human expression.
Yet reading and interpreting poetry also offers a unique way to cultivate ethical knowledge and therefore bears on collective, and not just individual, life. Because it is a hyper-condensed form of expression, poetry requires an intensive focus on everything from word choice (why these words and not others?) and imagery (what are the implications of this metaphor for conveying this idea?) to structure (why end this line here?) and overall form (why write a sonnet to explore this subject?). More importantly, it asks that we think about how all of these diverse elements relate to one another—a task that requires students to be both analytical and creative as they consider possibilities and then weigh those possibilities against what is there on the page. As nineteenth-century writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “One must be an inventor to read well . . . There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” These interrogations and speculations into meaning and form therefore work best as a collective enterprise as students will invariably notice different things and have different reactions that we must sort through in order to figure out both what, and how, a poem means.
This is, of course, analogous to the very forms of interaction and analysis that, for better or for worse, we undertake with our fellow citizens as we sort through the complexities, frustrations, and outright paradoxes of democracy itself as we consider both what and how democracy means. When Emerson suggested that “America is a poem in our eyes” and Walt Whitman asserted, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” they were voicing a similar notion since what democracy is or means is fundamentally linked to how it operates. Liberty and equality are both integral to democracy—but how do they relate to one another? How, exactly, does “one” emerge out of “many” in e pluribus unum? These are questions about forms of life just as much as they are about content and ideas. Like a poem, the US comprises an array of separate elements and is committed to various ideas and principles whose relation to one another is constantly being sorted out and debated. What is it that connects us as citizens? How much of that connection is essential, and to what extent do we need our own space to flourish?
It is here that reading what I am calling the poetry of separation and connection, specifically, can help us work through the various predicaments we are currently facing, not only amid the various recent forms of civil unrest—all of which have, in one way or another, highlighted our myriad forms of separation from one another and prompted new questions about what, if anything, links us together—but as we also come to terms with the solitude and isolation we have had to endure these last several months and as we consider anew the various ways our lives should, and should not be, intertwined.
In one of the great ironies of the present moment, students, with increasing frequency, confuse the word “apart” with the phrase “a part of.” To say that one is “apart of a community” suggests that they cannot think of connection without, at the same time, thinking about separation. In that respect, they have inverted the thinking of Walt Whitman, who continually used his verse to highlight connection and similarity where others only saw separation and difference. In his 1856 poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman, writing just a few years before the Civil War and, thus, during a time of immense division and strife, interrogated what it was that linked individuals together not only across expanses of space, but also through stretches of time. Huddled on board the eponymous ship with a host of other New Yorkers and traveling the route along which the Brooklyn Bridge will later be built, the poem’s speaker observes the “crowds of men and women” before him and begins to ponder what he might share not only with these strangers but with those who “shall cross from shore to shore years hence.”
For most people, such ruminations on the teeming masses of humanity would likely result in becoming uncomfortably aware of one’s own smallness and insignificance. But for Whitman, the multiplicity and difference that engulf him, both at the present moment and in his thoughts of the future, inspire an imaginative journey that pushes beyond the surface heterogeneity of the world to locate deeper sources of similarity and connection. “The similitudes of the past and those of the future” are, Whitman is convinced, part of a “well-join’d scheme” that can often be difficult to discern. “What is more subtle,” he asks, “than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?” Yet that connection, he believes, is nevertheless there, residing at the most fundamental levels of our being, connecting each of us, in the “impalpable sustenance” of this moment, to the “others” with whom we share the present, as well as the even-more-multitudinous “others” who, “years hence,” will take similar ferry journeys.
Whitman, of course, is talking about more than just sharing a ferry ride. For him, the ferry—a human invention that connects one part of the world with another—represents the various journeys we all take in the course of a human life: journeys out into the physical world we share with others; journeys into the realms of thought and feeling; journeys into experiences of doubt and fear as we attempt to understand a turbulent and uncertain world; journeys through time as we leave behind, ever so imperceptibly, the people we once were and move closer to those whom we strive to be or the world forces us to become. For Whitman, the simple fact of our mutual journeying is one of the key fibers that knit otherwise unique individuals together. “What is it then between us?” the poem’s speaker asks at the poem’s mid-point (itself a place of transition), though by the time we get to this line the question is largely rhetorical since Whitman has already made clear where he stands:
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 the crowd…
Echoing his famous declaration in “Song of Myself” that “what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Whitman’s speaker posits a kind of cosmic connection between human individuals, a connection that extends across space and time much the same way that Whitman’s sprawling sentences, characteristic of his free verse style, stretch across the page as they enumerate the captivating multiplicity of human life and grasp, word by word, clause by clause, for the fibers that link our experiences into one “well-join’d scheme.”
Such a cosmic notion of human connection is obviously quite a lot to take away from a few glances between strangers on board a ferry. And, of course, the very assertion that any one individual could so thoroughly understand another and experience the same feelings and struggles—as Whitman asserts, “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall”—has not only become passé, but in some ways outright delusional amid the rampant social, economic, and racial inequities of modern American life. Our experiences are patently not the same. To emphasize what we have in common, then, always carries the risk that we will forget the many things we do not share, but should. Still, we cannot overlook the fact that no less a poet than Langston Hughes, speaking from the New York City of “years hence” that Whitman gestured towards in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and who, like Whitman, also “sang America” in his Harlem Renaissance poetry, echoes Whitman’s thought while also highlighting the racial divides that Whitman too easily glossed over:
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
The dash and the line break Hughes uses after the word “white” before making his next point (“yet a part of me”) captures, on the page, the social and cultural distance that separates the young black speaker of this poem, “Theme for English B,” from the white instructor for whom the young man is writing. After reading the word “white,” we have to jump over that dash, which operates somewhat like a barrier, and make our way to the next line in order to arrive at the speaker’s point about connection. Yet Hughes, like Whitman, posits a similarly deep, if similarly subtle and elusive, connection between otherwise different individuals while, at the same time, acknowledging the various forms of distance between them.
Neither Whitman nor Hughes give us much in the way of policy, of course. Yet their ability to keep in view, both in the content as well as in the structure of their poems, both that which separates and that which connects us, combined with their shared capacity for dwelling in the mysteries and uncertainties that always obtain when we attempt to hold in our mind seemingly contradictory ideas (separation and connection) exemplifies a faculty poets call “negative capability.” Both poets recognize that exploring what it is we share need not entail glossing over what makes our situations or our experiences different. And by giving us two commonplace speakers—a ferry passenger and a student—in their poems, Whitman and Hughes suggest that we all possess such a faculty and are therefore capable of plumbing the imaginative depths of what it means to inhabit and share a world with one another, and what we lose when we fail to cultivate that world—or when events beyond our control threaten to dissolve it.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that a truly “common world” was a collective creation that “at once relate[s] and separate[s]” the individuals who constitute it, thus preventing them from suffering “desperate lonely separation,” on the one hand, and being “pressed together into a mass,” on the other. Striking such a balance was important for someone like Whitman, who, living in New York City, was intent on acknowledging the individuality of each and every person who helped constitute democracy’s teeming masses while, at the same time, emphasizing the cosmic force that linked them into a “well-join’d scheme.” For the later poet Robert Frost, whose poetry captures the more rural expanses of New England, it was often the nature of our connection with one another that needed to be interrogated, and at times recovered, given the greater physical distance between residents of the countryside.
In his 1914 poem “Mending Wall,” Frost portrays one of his characteristically quaint rural scenes as the poem’s first-person speaker describes what has become a spring ritual for him and his neighbor: walking along the stone wall that marks the property line between their land and replacing the boulders that have tumbled down or fallen out of place because the ground has frozen and thawed over the course of the winter and caused the wall to shift. At first glance, it seems to be a poem about maintaining divisions. “We keep the wall between us as we go,” Frost’s speaker tells us, emphasizing how, even though the effort to mend the wall’s “gaps” is a shared endeavor, distance and separation are still maintained. In a way, the whole ritual seems like a bit of sport to the poem’s speaker. “Oh, just another kind of out-door game, / One on a side. It comes to little more,” he jests, particularly because, as he puts it,
. . . we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
With that bit of folk wisdom dispensed, the two country dwellers, Frost’s speaker tells us, continue “to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again.”
And yet something about the yearly ritual doesn’t sit right with the poem’s speaker, who remains unconvinced by his neighbor’s home-spun logic about fences and separation. “Why do they make good neighbors?,” he wants to ask because, for him, there appears to be something more significant and meaningful—even, perhaps, something quasi-magical—in the “gaps” that form in the wall each winter. We see this, for instance, in the odd syntax of the poem’s very first line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” With this unconventional phrasing, Frost evokes a sense of mystery, and perhaps even a hint of foreboding, about the “something” out there in the universe, some unseen actor or force, that wants not only this wall, but all walls, to come down, at least partially. Pondering how to explain this unseen force to his neighbor, who stubbornly “will not go behind his father’s saying” about good fences making good neighbors, the poem’s speaker posits, “I could say ‘Elves’ to him, / But it’s not elves exactly”—another odd statement that seems to imply that, though “it’s not elves exactly” that want the wall down, it is nonetheless something like elves. For Frost’s speaker, there is far more at work in the world than the physical processes of thermal dynamics causing the ground to freeze and thaw; so, too, is there a mysterious “something” that inhabits the physical space between individuals and that wants to bring them closer together.
It is interesting to note, however, that Frost’s speaker does not categorically deny that “good fences make good neighbors.” Indeed, many of us can think of instances where separation and space would be beneficial—hence the sense of foreboding evoked in the first line’s puzzling syntax. Perhaps not all barriers should be taken down. What the speaker instead questions is whether this seemingly universal saying pertains to this particular situation with his neighbor given that their respective landscapes—one with apple trees, the other with pines—already seem to manifest and mark out the differences between them. Why add a wall on top of that? Might that inhibit other forms of connection that might obtain, that might even be necessary, to complement the otherwise separate and distinct lives they appear to be living? To be a neighbor, in a truly robust sense of the term, means sharing more than a property line with another individual; it means that, to some extent, one is the co-cultivator of a shared world not entirely unlike the one that citizens must foster and shape with one another.
Of course, the dimensions of the world one shares with a neighbor, or with one’s fellow citizens, is precisely what needs to be constantly worked out. But that working out is what makes one a neighbor and not simply a person who lives over there. And “neighbor” is, recall, not the term Frost’s speaker uses, but the one his fellow wall-mender employs and which the speaker, in neighborly, democratic fashion, attempts to examine in greater complexity and detail, thus endeavoring to illuminate with greater exactness the contours of that world.
The space of democracy, however, is far more abstract, nebulous, and vast. Determining which walls must be mended and which simply inhibit the co-creation of a collective world becomes a far more daunting task, one that asks us to draw on our knowing how to move about and keep alive that world rather than merely asserting that which we know. But moving about that space, Whitman, Hughes, and Frost suggest, is in many ways analogous to the way we move about our historical moment; our neighborhood; or even the lines, structure, and ideas of a poem. It asks that we confront the multiplicity and complexity of these worlds and creatively seek out their interrelations and connecting links, not to ignore or elide difference, but in order to more attentively judge where it should and should not obtain. As the philosopher William James put it, “Ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just insofar as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.” By asking what we think about the relationship between its various formal and substantive elements, poetry allows us to develop a faculty for moving from one particular to another as well as between the particular and the general as we search out similarity and connection amid an abundance of heterogeneity. And reading the poetry of separation and connection, in particular, offers a renewed perspective on the nature of solitude and separation—on the ways we are all a part of a larger democratic scheme whose formal and substantive dimensions we must continually survey and co-create (even with those who understand that scheme differently), but which also recognizes the uniqueness of every individual and the ways we all, to some extent, must exist apart from others.