Untitled verse spans 16 lanes of traffic as part of the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge
A poet's world isn't often glamorous. Part of that is by choice, of course, and part of that is due to the fact that our culture just doesn't pay much attention to poets and their carefully chosen words. So it should come as no surprise that even a 375-foot-long poem goes completely unnoticed by many of the people walking by it.
The reason why this poem doesn't necessarily stand out is largely because it is attached to an equally interesting thing: the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge. The Whitney Bridge is the large yellow and blue bridge connecting the Sculpture Garden to Loring Park, crossing over Lyndale Avenue, I-94 and Hennepin Avenue.
American poet John Ashbery wrote the untitled poem in 1988 for the Whitney Bridge, upon being commissioned by the designer of the iconic bridge, Siah Armajani, a Twin Cities-based artist.
The poem spans the length of the bridge on both sides across the upper lintel of the bridge. The wording is in very plain black and it's out of sight like most poetry is, as Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books will tell you. (Ashbery's poem is inscribed well above eye-level on the bridge.)
“It is like most poetry, which is not really there except for those who pay attention,” Lorberer said. “And those who do notice it find it very interesting.”
Joe Hallifax, of Minneapolis, is one such person. He noticed the poem and found it to be an impressive piece of art, mainly because of its location.
“I'm not a big fan of poetry, truthfully,” Hallifax said. “But the fact that it is on a bridge is pretty cool and makes me want to read it.”
Outside of the poem's location, it is without a doubt the length of the poem that makes it fit in so well with all of the other quirky exhibits at the Sculpture Garden. The length has even led to people at the Walker Art Center (which along with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board own the Sculpture Garden) to jokingly label it with the question in a brochure: “The World's Longest Poem?”
“Obviously it is not really the world's longest poem text-wise,” said Susan Rotilie of the Walker Art Center's Education and Community Programs Department. “The statement on our brochure is kind of a pun and refers to the physical space the poem occupies - 375 feet. We really didn't do any research to see if it is actually the longest in that respect, so it may not be officially the longest poem.”
Julian Papenheim, a foreign exchange student from Germany, is one of the people who did not initially see what may or may not be the world's longest poem but was enthralled upon hearing of it. He no longer looks at the bridge as just a colorful way of crossing 16 lanes of traffic.
“It excites me and gets me into something new and interesting,” Papenheim said. “It's just another form of art.”
The poem itself is described at the Sculpture Garden as a meditation on movement, place, order and crossing.
Lorberer, who has analyzed the poem, is a big fan of it.
“It is a very wonderful poem. It is similar to much of Ashbery's other work. Much of his poetry is a product of a wondering mind,” Lorberer said. “It completes the architecture of the bridge very well.”
Then again, one wouldn't really expect the poem to be the main attraction, but rather a compliment to the physical form of art, which knocks people off their feet, frequently overshadowing the written art.
From Ashbery's poem:
“This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
and lucky for us.”