More reasons why “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is psychedelic

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Let me further explain what I meant in class when I called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” psychedelic. I’m not talking about hallucinations of shimmering bright colors, although there are arguments to be made that the poem is psychedelic in that sense too (“glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings”).

I’m thinking more about line 9:

“The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the same scheme,”

Tom Bissell’s NYT review of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” describes a similar concept: “Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving.”

Similarly, the poem begins by recognizing “myself disintegrated.” This awareness of the individual in relation to universal oneness is a particularly stereotypical psychedelic thought.

The review continues, “the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.”

This all lines up very well with the poem. Although we certainly have a sense of Whitman’s individuality, he spends much less time talking about himself than he does talking about being awed by the passage of time, the creations of both man and nature, and the strange beauty of everything.

The review goes even further to say that “Near-death experiences, meditation and fasting can get you there [to a psychedelic experience], too.”

This is right in line with Whitman’s experience on the ferry; he wasn’t on psychedelic drugs, but he was overwhelmed with the beauty and interconnection of all things, which is basically what psychedelic drugs make you feel.

As an aside, this feeling is not in conflict with Whitman’s support of the temperance movement. According to Bissell’s review, “LSD showed such promise in treating alcoholism that the A.A. founder Bill Wilson considered including LSD treatment in his program.”

This is a pretty long post, and I still don’t think I’ve convinced anyone of anything. As the book review puts it, psychedelics are “hard to talk about without sounding like an aspiring guru or credulous dolt.” I think I’m coming off pretty strongly in the latter camp.

If you’re at all interested, read the review I keep referencing:

2 thoughts on “More reasons why “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is psychedelic

  1. I was pretty skeptical of the psychedelic claim in class but this post has moved my opinion significantly.


    I think the biggest problem I (and perhaps other people) had with the psychedelic claim is that that word in particular has a strong connotation with “hallucinations of shimmering bright colors,” as you point out in the beginning of the post. In particular I thought mind-altering, transcendental, mind-expanding, surreal, or even “trippy” might be better terms for the effect you were describing.

    I think now, though, you’ve done a lot of work to convince me, especially with how you connect the idea of dissolving on a hallucinogenic trip to the poem. This post also led me to look up the definition of “psychedelic.” The first result that popped up was “relating to or denoting drugs (especially LSD) that produce hallucinations and apparent expansion of consciousness.” So, according to that definition, I would say you’re right. Well-argued.

  2. I was another skeptic of using the word “psychedelic,” mainly because of how I always interpreted the word from a strictly neuropharmacological standpoint, but I think you make some really great points and I’m definitely more convinced about your case.  I think your point about “dissolving” is especially interesting and  convincing.

    Scientists don’t entirely know how hallucinations are made, but something they’ve come up with to attempt to explain them is the cortical excitability hypothesis (this brief rambling may be the result of my love for neuro coming out, so if it sounds bogus just ignore me). We have certain sensory neurons that fire all the time and fire even more when we see/hear/taste/touch/smell something that gets our attention. But when someone takes a hallucinogen these neurons fire at a lower basal rate, but fire more intensely in reaction to particular salient sensory stimuli, amplifying perception of the environment and perhaps leading to distorted images. Can’t say I ever anticipated applying neurobiology to poetry, and this is certainly a stretch, but Wordsworth’s poem definitely has an emphasized focus on the workings of the environment around him, so much so that he seems to be both attached and separated from it. What I mean by this is that the way he describes his surroundings gives the impression that he is both an observer, but also still a part of the intertwined network of everyone on the ferry boat. I think that this sensory distortion/magnification is something that the use of the word “psychedelic” can capture.

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