Bill Murray (Photos courtesy of Poets House)

After 24 years, the Poetry Walk Over the Brooklyn Bridge has become a literary tradition in New York City, and it was especially significant this year because of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday on May 31. Unfortunately, bad weather forced the organizers to cancel the crossing just a few hours before it was to take place Monday.

“I think this was necessary,” said Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House. “This is a serious rain for all of the professional sound equipment.”

Honored Poets from left to right: Gregory Pardlo, Rosamund King, Anne Waldman, Robert Pinsky and Jennie Xie.

Poets House, which organizes the walk, still managed to honor poet Anne Waldman at their annual gala, granting her the Elizabeth Kray Award for “service to the field of poetry.” And Bill Murray, a fixture at the Poetry Walk, made a surprise appearance at the end of the gala, where other readers included Robert Pinsky, Gregory Pardio, Rosamund King, and Jennie Xie.

When we told Waldman that Briccetti described her as the “female embodiment of Walt Whitman in our time,” the author of Trickster Feminism laughed it off and said she didn’t really think about herself quite in those terms. “But I feel, yes, I’m in some kind of lineage or legacy. I worked very closely with Allen Ginsberg,” she said. “And Whitman was certainly part of the invocation of what it is to be a poet in America today. You know, we have to help wake the world up to itself, which Whitman’s certainly did.”

Walkman elaborated on the Ginsberg comparison, calling Whitman “the greatest historian from a certain perspective of those difficult times. He can be at the slave block and have sympathy with a woman who’s being auctioned off as well as the buyer. He tries to join these two very oppositional realities in his mind as a poet, and Ginsberg had that quality too, this negative capability. Being able to navigate the chaos, hold disparate things in the mind, this kind of equanimity in the description of both worlds.”

Usually, the poetry walk starts at City Hall Park, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. “We read some poems about New York City that celebrate being in New York,” said Briccetti. There’s a magic, a “relatability” about being in places and hearing words about the places so that it makes you fall in love with the city again, she went on. “It’s a feeling of bonding with people and being in language together and being in your city.” Then as the more than 300 participants walk to the Brooklyn waterfront, poets read aloud Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

“There was one year, Patricia Smith was reading and she’s an extremely incantatory reader and there was a barge that slowed down just to listen and hear her,” Briccetti remembered. “There was someone who came up to me and said, ‘Is this a religious thing?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess so,’” After all, how else could one describe 350 quiet listeners feeding their souls with words.

Similarly, Waldman referred to poetry as “our earliest kind of primordial spiritual religion and practice,” elaborating that “words are sacred, words are powerful. The consciousness is important. Where your mind is, where your attention is, where your imagination is. Every poem you read is a state of mind; that’s how I read poetry, in any case.”

The form is more important now than ever, said Waldman, who was taking a quick break from her summer duties at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which she co-founded with Ginsberg and Diane di Prima back in the ‘70s. “I think we have to guard our language with the debasement that language is suffering. The way the leader of our country speaks just very simply; the crudity, and you know, its unbound sort of affirmative, ego speak. It’s almost– it could be the death of language if that, if that takes over.”