For the Love of Bridges: Hart Crane and Me
I first read Hart Crane during an undergraduate class on American lyric poetry at the University of Sydney. I grew up in a household largely devoid of poetry in a suburb so starved for public transport that our most reliable way into town was a ferry crossing. Over the years I commuted to and from high school, down a tributary of the Parramatta River west of the city into the sloshing embrace of downtown Circular Quay, the highlight of my journey was passing beneath the criss-cross girders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I imagined the journeys of countless strangers above me in cars, buses and trains, and dreamed of future adventures of my own to places which, I realised much later, were defined by their bridges: New York, Paris, Venice. It was years before I discovered Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which looked forward to a literal East River crossing as it spoke to future generations of the feelings common to any ferry passenger who ever paid attention to her voyage. My encounter with Hart Crane, a poet who transformed his fascination with a feat of structural engineering into a myth of America, so dazzled and daunted me that I ended up writing a dissertation about his epic poem The Bridge.
Harold Hart Crane was born in Ohio in 1899, the year that also welcomed Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. From an early age Crane knew two things without a doubt: that he was a poet, and that he belonged in New York. At sixteen his first poem was published, and a year later he was living in Manhattan, albeit temporarily. He never finished high school, but his knowledge of poetry, driven by personal need rather than curriculum, was unparalleled for someone so young.
Few American poets are so notorious for being “difficult” as Crane. Even fewer have taken New York’s bridges as their subject, although the company of such American “bridge poets” is distinguished, with Jack Kerouac, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams among them. But only Crane dared imagine the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbolic starting point for a poem spanning American history, technology, geography and mythology across its fifty-odd pages.
By the time Hart Crane arrived in New York in the last days of 1916, fleeing Ohio and his candy-manufacturer father, the Brooklyn Bridge had been open to traffic for more than 30 years. He was smitten. “The most superb piece of construction in the modern world,” he later described it in a letter to his mother and grandmother after moving into an apartment in Brooklyn Heights with a view of the bridge. As Colm Toibin put it in an essay on Crane for the New York Review of Books, “it was as if he had walked into his own poem.”
Crane’s vision for his major work was clear to him as early as 1923, writing to a friend:
I am too much interested in this Bridge thing lately to write letters, ads, or anything. It is just beginning to take the least outline,—and the more outline the conception of the things takes,—the more its final difficulties appall me… Very roughly, it concerns a mystical synthesis of “America.” History and fact, location, etc. all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter… The marshalling of the forces… will take me months, at best; and I may have to give it up entirely before that; it may be too impossible an ambition.”
It would take him seven years to realise his vision.
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.
Crane aimed to create a structure out of words that would celebrate, and possibly emulate, the steel structure that inspired him, and in turn the culture that had made it possible. In different sections of The Bridge he writes of Columbus and Pocahontas, of the prairie and the subway, of the myth of Atlantis and Einstein’s new theories of physics. As a young man in the Jazz Age, it was important to Crane to claim a useful function for himself as a poet in the newly mechanised daily life that surrounded him. The enduring question of the poet’s role in society had rarely felt more acute.
I hustled a small grant to travel to the Hart Crane Collection at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library to conduct research. These were the days just before the internet condensed space and allegedly saved researchers so much time. The library staff regarded this far-flung Australian with a mixture of fascination and pity as I opened boxes and pored over Crane’s handwritten drafts. It was on that visit that I walked across the bridge for the first time – an almost spiritual experience that Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who did the same thing in 1925, described best:
As a crazed believer enters a church,
Retreats into a monastery cell, austere and plain
So I, in graying evening haze
Humbly set foot on Brooklyn Bridge.
Bridges make literal our dream of connection. It is no coincidence that a minister of the church officiated as part of the opening ceremonies of both the Brooklyn and the Sydney Harbour bridges, or that the head of the Roman Catholic Church is known as Pontiff -- from the Latin for bridge-maker.
I had identified in Crane’s imagery an ambivalence about his ability as a poet to picture the bridge on paper as vividly as painters and photographers could. The battle in The Bridge between verbal and visual imagery -- a minefield of confusing vocabulary and ornate literary theory -- became my subject. Leaning heavily on what Crane himself called “the logic of metaphor,” the bridge at different times becomes an “unfractioned idiom,” a “multitudinous verb,” and an “index of night,” among a host of other rhetorical means of making the bridge into a metaphor, finally, of language itself. “The bridge is a symbol of all such poetry as I’m interested in writing,” he confessed in a letter to his friend, writer and critic Waldo Frank in 1926. Conflicted as ever, in the same paragraph he also admits that “the bridge as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviourism and toothpicks.”
Crane gave much thought to whether or not to include a visual image of the bridge in the poem’s first edition, which would appear in Paris via the Black Sun Press in 1930. At one point Crane asked permission of Joseph Stella to use his painting of the Brooklyn Bridge as the frontispiece for his book. But it was photographer Walker Evans who most influenced Crane’s thinking about the relative abilities of poets and visual artists to communicate. The friends strolled around Brooklyn Heights on regular “photography walks”, as Crane called them, discussing such questions as whether or not a photograph can illustrate a poem, whether it should, and whether anyone other than themselves might care. The first edition featured three photographs of the bridge, which were the first published photographs of Walker Evans’s long career. The photographs are surprisingly small, centered in oversized pages, as if to reinforce the distortions of space, symbolism and language in the poem itself. Each edition of The Bridge published in Crane's lifetime was accompanied by at least one photograph by Evans.
Only after Crane finished writing the poem did he discover that Washington Roebling, the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, had lived in the same apartment building in Brooklyn Heights, with the same view of the bridge, that Crane had. He sent Roebling’s son John a signed copy, prompted, he wrote, by his “devotion to the Brooklyn Bridge as the matchless symbol of America and its destiny.”
But not even a structure as solid as the Brooklyn Bridge could bear the heavy load of visionary and literal associations Crane brought to it. On its publication in 1930, Crane’s epic was swiftly condemned as a failure by a raft of critics, including some with whom Crane had enjoyed encouraging correspondence over the years of its writing. One such correspondent, Yvor Winters, referred to the poem’s “wreckage” in his review for Poetry, declaring with thinly veiled homophobia that “Mr. Crane is temperamentally unable to understand a very wide range of experience.” Crane was devastated.
Two years later, despite the publication of The Bridge and new poems including The Broken Tower underway, Crane’s drinking and erratic behaviour had rendered him almost incapable of earning a living as an occasional advertising copywriter, which he had done in Cleveland and New York, let alone as anything else. Having exhausted the funds of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Crane was en route to the United States from Mexico when he made the decision to jump overboard the Orizaba. Witness accounts vary, but it appears Crane made an unwanted advance to a sailor aboard the ship, and sported a black eye from the thanks he received. An eyewitness reported that around midday on April 27, 1932, Crane walked calmly to the ship’s railing, removed and folded his coat, then vaulted over the railing into the Atlantic.
Despite his brief life and the mixed reception his work initially received, Hart Crane’s legend and reputation has solidly grown since his death. He has become something of a poet’s poet, inspiring generations of writers despite his dense imagery and often cryptic associations. Tennessee Williams was such a fervent admirer of Crane that he asked in his will to be buried at sea, as close as possible to the spot where Crane had drowned. On his death, Tennessee’s younger brother ignored those instructions, and arranged a traditional church service and burial instead.
When I finally graduated, my PhD supervisor gave me a first US edition of The Bridge, which remains one of my most treasured possessions. Ten years later, I moved to New York, where I see the Brooklyn Bridge whenever I make my own river crossing -- not by ferry, but by one of the trains crossing the Manhattan Bridge, a structure that has inspired little poetry. For Hart Crane, there was only ever one bridge.
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.