Verse vendors: Lego my Whitman

Verse vendors: Lego my Whitman
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

The bard of Brooklyn has never looked so square.

Berl’s Poetry Shop in Dumbo unveiled a three-foot portrait head of Walt Whitman made entirely of Legos on June 20. The shop’s co-owner commissioned the unconventional homage as a permanent fixture because the famous poet’s historical footprints are what first attracted him to the area, he said.

“One of the reasons we wanted to be in Dumbo was the heritage and history of Whitman,” said Jared White, co-owner of the poetry shop. “We thought Legos were a way to be cheeky about nodding to that history.”

Whitman would have been very familiar with the neighborhood around his new digs. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had its offices on Old Fulton Street between Elizabeth Place and Front Street, about five blocks from Berl’s, when he edited the paper from 1846 to 1848. And the scribe penned a poem about taking the ferry to Fulton Landing called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

A dozen people turned out for the big reveal, which was followed by readings of poems inspired by Whitman. The artist Jeff Peterson started crafting the hollow all–gray sculpture 10 months ago. He worked from photographs of Whitman in his old age, when the bard’s beard and hair were at their most impressive.

Peterson grew up playing with Legos, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy stranded him in his apartment for days that he rediscovered his aptitude with the building blocks by whiling away the hours building a robot.

The genuine article: For the sake of comparison, here is actual Walt Whitman.
George C. Cox

He used around 3,000 blocks in the Whitman piece, starting near the nose and eyes and working out from there, he said. He focused on one small section at a time rather than drawing up a complex blueprint, he explained.

“There wasn’t a lot of planning, but there was a lot of micro-planning,” Peterson said. “Every moment became a new decision.”

The hardest part was getting the hair texture to look realistic, the artist said.

“It’s almost like a cartoon drawing, giving the idea of the texture,” Peterson said.

Whitman’s time in the borough has spawned all manner of memorials, including a Whitman-themed Clinton Hill restaurant that opened in March, and a yearly reading of his epic poem “Song of Myself” by look-alikes in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Muse-ic to their ears: Berl’s co-owner Jared White reads from Whitman’s work at the unveiling of the store’s new Lego statue of the bard.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini