My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy,” as Eliot wrote in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.’”
In an essay on Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much because he uses recondite allusions, as Eliot or Pound or Joyce do, but because of his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted. He was a Late Romantic who wanted to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.
The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated Romantic trope. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet, a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp as it transformed the wind into eerie music. The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.
The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”
The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:
And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—
Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands:
High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…
Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”
The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville in which the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division, my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both meets Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—
Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!
—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”
“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotesque elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life. We can tell it’s Eliotesque because it is anti-Semitic: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”
Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:
And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?
Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:
And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?
Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:
And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.
The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. For example, Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed in their entirety in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; similarly, an annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over 80 years after the poem’s first appearance.
Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the 19th century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by 19th-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less credible.
Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge. Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane alludes to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?
But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem. Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research we do, which make us feel less intelligent as readers.
Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically nonbinary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.
Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is impressive. More than impressive, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:
We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.
This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the 20th century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years when I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.
 This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as a commanding, still less a swaggering, intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man.
 The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.
 Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.