For National Poetry Month: Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge”

I miss Hart Crane this spring.

It’s not that I’m a particular fan of his poetry: sometimes I’m tempted to paraphrase Doctorow on Poe and call him our “best bad poet.” But for several spring semesters in a row I’ve included parts of The Bridge in my Writing New York class, and this year, for a variety of reasons, decided to drop him. What I lost, in part, was the need to explain modernism once we arrived at the early twentieth century. I’d spend part of a lecture rambling about connections and comparisons between modernist painting and poetry, using Joseph Stella’s immense, 5-panel painting “The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted” as a point of comparison (scroll down once you click here), along with Williams and Demuth on the figure 5 in gold. Then we’d settle in for a collaborative close reading of the “Proem” that prefaces Crane’s book-length masterpiece, his attempt at an American epic.

I miss him, though, for two reasons. One, preparing for that lecture inevitably returned me to a new-found sense of loving poetry, especially difficult poetry, the feeling of being a bookish, alienated, angry teenager holed up in the corner of the library with a notebook, copying and imitating bookish, alienated, angry poetry. The feeling of just getting a handle on a difficult poem is a hard one to replicate, and yet Crane somehow always brought it back.

And I miss him because I like his story, sad as it is. The New York Review of Books published Colm Tóibín’s take on Crane a few weeks ago, and he does it far better than I could, but here’s my thumbnail version of Crane’s biography: He came to the city to be a poet. Growing up in Ohio, the son of a candy maker, he had corresponded with two vital New York-based arts publications in hopes of writing for them: The Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, somewhat European in its orientation, and most infamous for the obscenity trial that resulted from its publication of Joyce’s Ulysses; and Seven Arts, also Greenwich Village-based, but devoted to politics as much as the arts and run by a group of young men who called themselves “Young Americans.” During WWI the government shut down Seven Arts for its radical political views; the Young Americans’ disillusionment led them to the conclusion that artists should shun traditional politics and remake a democratic and modern America through their art.

Crane can be understood as one of those American moderns who followed the narrative of coming to the city, looking for a place where he belonged but never quite finding it. Born in 1899, he convinced his parents to let him move to NYC in 1917. He worked in advertising, but kept writing poetry; his father wanted him in business and brought him back to Ohio at least once to work in the family candy factory. He admired Eliot but wanted to reach back to Whitman and bring his optimism and celebration of America into modernism. He didn’t achieve the same optimism in his own life. He was tortured by a bad relationship with his father and conflicted about his homosexuality. When he published The Bridge in 1930 it received mostly poor reviews, although it was taught in a pioneering modern poetry class at NYU and it won him a Guggenheim and other prizes. He used the Guggenheim money to research in Mexico for a third book, but jumped from the ship on its return voyage and drowned. (Yesterday was the 76th anniversary of his death.) There’s some irony in the way he chose to die: his father, it turns out, had invented Life Saver candies.

Why spin a modernist American epic out of the Brooklyn Bridge? The title (and central symbol) has several possible meanings. The actual bridge is a technological triumph. When it was built, its towers were among the tallest man-made structures on the planet. As a symbol, the bridge links past to present; the poem uses American history to prophesy a new American democracy and suggests that poetry itself—if not this poem itself—may be the bridge between an old industrial order and the liberating potential of the technological achievements that order yielded. In order to invent this new future, Crane and others of his moment dug around for what they called a “usable past.” They looked for fragments to assemble into some sort of unified vision. (All of this is a fairly reductive take on modernism, but it works for the most part.)

For multiple takes on Crane’s poem, click here. As a whole, The Bridge has fifteen individual sections. Structured as a heroic quest, it’s epic and cultural, but it’s also a personal journey (to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn, a daily commuter’s work cycle); it’s a map of America, past and present (all at once, in a sort of temporal and literary cubism, which is how Columbus, Pocahontas, Rip Van Winkle, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Isadora Duncan can all show up on his trip into the city—how the commute stretches all the way to California, all the way down to Virginia and North Carolina—and back to Brooklyn by subway). The section called “Cape Hatteras,” the first half of which is about the new technology of the airplane (culminating in a crash), is also the section in which the speaker takes Whitman’s hand, walking across the bridge of time. Whitman’s inclusion emphasizes that the “usable past” Crane came up with was largely literary—and in this case, significantly, gay as well.

For now I’ll leave you with the opening section and let you make of it what you will. When I read these stanzas with students I tell them to think about the action starting, at least, with a train ride across the Bridge (back when the Brooklyn Bridge took passengers across the river by train). I also suggest they keep their eyes on the seagull’s wings from the opening lines: watch them dip, pivot, and turn into other blank screens and white images as they fall. See how many of these you can find, almost like hidden pictures; they add up, I think, to a decent inroad to understanding both the prefatory poem and the big work as a whole. Having said that, I acknowledge that I’m not a scholar of Crane or modernist poetry, and in the spirit of the month, I hope that whoever’s reading this — TGW regulars (including some people who do work on modernist poetry), lurking students, angry high school kids Googling their way through a difficult poetry phase — will leave their two cents in the comments section about what they see going on here.

To Brooklyn Bridge, by Hart Crane (1930)

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day …

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn …
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon … Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year …

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

29 responses to “For National Poetry Month: Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge””

  1. Tim says:

    Bryan, I think I speak for many who read TGW when I say that I wish I had had you as a professor when I was an undergrad.

  2. Thanks, Tim. What a nice thing to say.

    But I was really hoping people would be taking a stab at reading this thing. I assume some people are knee-deep in grading their own papers or preparing their own lectures, but that only accounts for a small portion of y’all. As for the rest of you: it’s only a poem! Take a crack at it. You know you want to.

  3. swells says:

    Okay, I’ll bite although I only have a few minutes before class–but what could possibly be more tempting to me than this? Two immediate things jump out at me on a perfunctory skimming (more later, I hope, with time for close reading): one, does anyone else hear the deafening echo of “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (1915) in “Till elevators drop us from our day”?–though unlike Eliot, Crane is maintaining his iambic pentameter for the whole poem (which is not very modernist except in its desire to pay homage to formalism’s power even while acknowledging its insufficiency). If he is deliberately echoing Prufrock (and who knows–most of those guys hated Eliot), then is he replacing its socially shallow and disconnected world with the industrial corporate world for a different paradigm of isolation?

    Second, and perhaps too obviously, the use of “thee” and “thy” about an architectural piece instead of about you-know-Who is so interesting, so of its time, so Stevensian, and also so somehow hopeful, that even though God has either screwed you over or never existed at all, maybe technology or the art of humans can be a replacement for that deity.

    I’m very excited about this assignment especially since I haven’t dug into this poem before–I’ve read much more about it than I’ve read the thing itself. Lots to do today but I predict I’ll be back for a line or two.

  4. Ha ha! Triumph! A Swells comment before noon CA time on a Monday!

  5. ps — i had not heard this

    does anyone else hear the deafening echo of “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (1915) in “Till elevators drop us from our day”?

    and so i thank you!

  6. swells says:

    I know–I can NEVER manage to comment on Mondays and Tuesdays–but you hooked me too deep with this one!

  7. This has been my goal for weeks on end.

  8. ssw says:

    I thought the use of the seagull was interesting because the bird is actually alive, small and yet so comfortable navigating the enormity of the bridge. It’s a striking contrast against the man-made unnatural configuration of a skyscraper that dips, so unlike the bird. Also a bit ironic that these structures (skyscraper, the bridge) make me feel as a human being so fragile when at least in part, they’re supposed to demonstrate how big and powerful we are as humans.
    Interesting post Bryan.

  9. It’s Stephanie day at TGW!

    I like what you say, esp in light of one, maybe two, suicides in those lines — the bedlamite jumping from the bridge but also the hint (black thursday?) via the Wall St reference that skyscrapers serve modern cities in various ways as well?

    I wonder if the Bridge had started to seem quaint by the 1920s.

  10. People not named Stephanie can also feel free to discuss.

  11. LT says:

    Maybe a connection and maybe not, but I’ve been reading through a ton of Hemingway– and noticed that Crane and H., born the same year, diverged so significantly in style. Crane’s more on the Eliot tip. But the whole idea (beyond the particulars of fragmentation) of the shadow of self plays out both here, in Crane’s poem, and in H.’s realist work too. Crane writes of things “never disclosed,” “apparitional,” “obscured,” “dark.” Shadows are all over modernist writing– and are so Freudian too.

    Hemingway would have hated this poem…but Stanza 9 is quite beautiful. I liked this assignment.

  12. jeremy says:

    I knew Steph wouldn’t be able to resist! I, on the other hand, am much much much too busy to comment on this wonderful post… Oops!

    1: Speaking as someone who sat in on the first day of this very class (a few years ago), taught by BW of course, I completely agree, Tim.

  13. rm says:

    # 9-yeah Bryan, I was thinking the same thing. We just watched episodes # 3 (1865-1898) and # 4 (1898-1914) of the 1999 Burns PBS doc on NYC and the Bridge seemed such a huge part of the earlier episode as opposed to the more recent one, let alone by the time of Hart.

    I read the recent NYRB article but this post really made me think about the poetry itself-thanks.

  14. 12: I’m sure actual students are thinking about now, “One lecture to go! Hallelujah!”

    13: Glad to know this added anything to that piece. I think it’s funny how for some folks — Crane, his literary/spiritual descendant Jeff Buckley, etc — the death story seals the canonization and there’s no real way to approach the work outside that single biographical incident. I kind of like the poetry itself — he’s no Eliot, no Stein, certainly not a Whitman, but hell, the guy was younger than I am when he bit it. I’d like to think he had better stuff in him if he’d stuck around.

  15. swells says:

    Okay, for a treat for myself between classes I’m quick-trying a few more thoughts on this . . .

    To go along with the godlessness implied in Thee-ing a bridge, his description of the “rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene” (prefiguring The Sheltering Sky by 25 years!) also suggests a human world that ends at our construction of it (unlike the “obscure” “heaven of the Jews,” our paradise is now technological and of our own making). Also, in stanza 3, instead of worshiping at church or even connecting with other people, everyone is looking at the screen in a shared vision of media culture and cinema that tells them what to think? The only metanarrative that speaks to him is the bridge itself which out-myths God in the last line. I looked up “curveship” to try to understand this better but can’t fully understand what it means.

    And the description of the suicide in stanza 5 is so chilling given his own enactment of that same plunge! It’s interesting how the bridge serves as a model for his own swooping tragic flight, as well as a haven for the persecuted secret life that partially drove him to it (“Under thy shadow by the piers I waited” . . . )

    The more I read this the more not modern it is in its tone and form—it’s really more like Blake or Donne. That fabulous juxtaposition of 20th-c “traffic lights” with “thy swift . . . immaculate sigh of stars” really highlights the longing for some shred of Romanticism while still celebrating technological and artistic progress. In fact, I would call it the modern sublime.

  16. swells says:

    p.s. Speaking of sublime, that picture is foxy,

  17. Lurking student says:

    I love this poem for how it makes me consider New York: a furious and absurd testament to man’s imagination, as limited only by the extent of his more pragmatic reasoning, and, more than anything, (and I think this is what Crane means when he calls it “Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–”) a symbol of aspiration and unceasing hopefulness. It is a poem praising the greatness of a city, though it sites things like the Depression and suicide and the consuming capitalist culture. Like seemingly every quixotic 18 year-old who comes to New York even though he or she isn’t ready, or can’t afford it, or misunderstands what it’s like, Crane imposes a romanticism on the image of the city, refusing to wholly reckon with it as it maybe truly is. A lot of that rings true for me.

    Thanks for the great post.
    And just out of curiousity, what did you add to the syllabus instead of Crane?

  18. Swells — keep going! I’m loving this reading you’re developing. Some of it had crossed my mind, but the God stuff not so much, amazingly.

    Lurking student: Thanks for your thoughts too. I like the move to fold it back into the narrative of the idealized city & the star-struck rube (a narrative I know well myself). We added more Marshall Berman to the pot this year. In the past Crane has fit into the GV day or, more recently, shared Ginsberg’s day (alternate Whitmanian inheritors, I suppose). When we decided to give Berman his due and to let him set up the Robert Moses moment the piece to go was Crane.

  19. Stephanie Wells says:

    I just have to tell you how excited I am that after all these years of my meaning to read this poem, you have finally gotten me to do it. It just may have swooped over from your syllabus to mine.

  20. bw says:

    It works great with the Stella paintings! fwiw, the piece as a whole is *really* tough going. but i do like this opener. i love the motion of the opening sequence, how the wires of the bridge look like they’re chaining the waters/the statue of liberty as the passengers move over the bridge on the train. i love the seagull swooping into the sails, then into the movie screen, and the way the line “Foretold to other eyes on the same screen” echoes Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” I love the image of noon sun cutting through skyscrapers and the city as a bunch of fiery parcels as seen from the other side, in the Bridge’s shadows. I’d like to think there’s a play on “dreaming sod” near the end, too.

    When Crane was part of the lecture we showed the clip from _The Cruise_ where Speed airs his many grievances atop the Bridge, which has his back like a good and powerful friend. It starts about a minute into this clip. (It’s worth watching the whole thing, though, which is short.)

  21. actually, that clip cuts off too soon, and the next part provided on line skips the real meat of the Bridge sequence. :(

  22. My impressions of Crane’s poem:

    I love the fourth and fifth stanzas. It’s a curious image: a figure in the distance ( I see a man; does anyone else see a woman?) who is lacking something in his step and yet who’s still a gleaming vision. His freedom is what keeps him in New York, at the edge of that harbor. Such a city does invoke a sense of freedom in it’s concept (an island is one huge city, with all sorts of possibilities within it) ; harbors with their winds and their smells also invoke a sense of freedom.

    And yet a man commits suicide after this freedom. The poem zooms from such a big image to such a precise, tragic, hopeless moment. I can see it in film, slow-mo– a teetering soul, an air-filled shirt, one snide remark from an otherwise silent crowd that is watching this man fall. He gives up because of the bedlam around him, because of the cell he lives in; exactly the opposite feeling from the stanza before. And yet he finds freedom in those moments of flight; the freedom he saw in the man at the edge of the harbor.

    I also love the seventh stanza. I can’t place why. Maybe it’s the beautiful, big words and the sounds they make– vibrant reprieve, pardon thou dost show. Or maybe it’s the general idea: Time can’t give you anonymity with the accolade/reprieval you get from heaven. It feels new. A vibrant reprieve. Or maybe that small colon in there is what I like so much.

    I want to come back to this later. These are just the impressions I have now. I might concentrate on the last line of the tenth stanza later.

  23. It’s a curious image: a figure in the distance ( I see a man; does anyone else see a woman?) who is lacking something in his step and yet who’s still a gleaming vision.

    I like your reading of the jarring transition from the freedom (though “implicitly staying” the figure) and the desperation (and shirt-billowing pathos) of the bedlamite in the next. But the Thee seems clearly to be the Bridge itself. Or were you assigning the Bridge gender?

  24. I’m loving the first stanza, and liking the second and third — I will come back to read the rest with a little more time for contemplation after work. I was listening to Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf this morning, and now I am expecting the seagull to start ravening blood and bone before too long.

  25. Bryan: Well, if the bridge has a stride, the poet is giving it personification, right? It doesn’t feel too much of a stretch, once the poet has given it certain characteristics, to also try to attach gender to the bridge as well. After all, we find gender in cars and boats and cities…

  26. After rereading:

    There does not seem to be much of a story here — the first two stanzas had me anticipating one — but it’s just looking like random images. Some of the images are lovely, like the “bedlamite…Tilting there momently, small shirt ballooning” and “the traffic lights that skim thy swift Unfractioned idiom”. I think the poem stands or falls on the beauty of the language, which is sort of haphazard; some of it just sounds awkward, like “Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!” — that line and others like it keep me from really getting into the poem & hearing it spoken by my own voice.

    My friend Janis said, “Oh at the end he’s talking about death because he’s depressed.”

    My wife (who I was surprised to learn, took a class in Hart Crane’s poetry taught by John Barth when she was in SUNY Buffalo) said it’s more complex than I’m giving it credit for, but did not go into much detail beyond that.

    I will cop to being slow on the uptake; it took me until about the end of the first time through it to realize that “Thee” is the Bridge, he’s talking to the Bridge. Duh.

  27. (Also: “curveship” is excellent.)

  28. In the interest of not commenting serially (but too late!), I’ve posted over at my blog some explication of how the opening of the poem makes me think Crane is going to tell a story.

  29. bw says:

    hey modesto kid. thanks for the serial comments. the lost sense of story may be remedied (at least in part) by keeping in mind the notion of the commute (which really requires the rest of The Bridge to complete it) or by bearing in mind the idea of watching the gull as it transforms into other things. You’re right that this is in part about images — it’s cinematic, cubist, (almost) imagistic poetry. But I do think those images add up to something like a story.

    The gull turns into a sail turns into a piece of paper to be filed away by a paper pusher. The elevator (not necessarily one of those white reincarnations/transformations of the gull, but it carries folks in white shirts) drops. Then movie screens, on which the same flashing images will be shown over and over, seen by other eyes. There’s a story here about the daily grind. It gets more complicated after that, but the downward motion of the gull, the filed paper, the elevators, and the flickering images on the screen all seem to pave the way for the suicide. There’s an alternate set of things happening here, though — a shedding of constraints — also related to the Bridge, which is granted godlike associations (the power to reward, even as it’s harp and altar too), but this time the images related to its shadows. We see Manhattan skyscrapers like parcels coming undone. (What’s inside them?) We hear a lover’s cry. There seems to be the implication that he’s trolling for sex under the Bridge. I suppose the rest of the story is left for us to imagine.