I read Hart Crane today–sections from The Bridge: the proem “To Brooklyn Bridge,” “Cape Hatteras,” “The Tunnel,” and the final section, “Atlantis” (The Bridge: A Poem by Hart Crane, Liveright, 1970). I will confess that I’ve never actually been able to read The Bridge before. I’ve begun it, more than once–for how could I call myself a serious poet and not have read this poem?–and somehow it always felt like a dutiful exercise and so I abandoned it a few pages in. Today, the minute I opened the book on the train headed into Manhattan, I seemed to have full access to all parts of the narrative, above all its music. I knew what Crane was writing about. I shared his sense of its importance. I savored the language. I was in love with the ecstasy and sweep of the poem, and the tragic undertones I detected in its rhetorically dazzling effort to link a modernity of brilliant engineering to the “aura” of the ancient epic poetries. I couldn’t wait to be out on Broadway, adopting the voice of the poem’s speaker in praising and invoking the great-hearted Bridge that stands so near the small-minded money-grubbing doings of the Financial District. It meant a great deal to me that Muriel Rukeyser, in a note on her poem “The Outer Banks” which I’d read in the same location just days ago, allies herself with Crane’s imaginative use of Cape Hatteras. It meant as much that Crane invokes Whitman: “‘–Recorders ages hence’–ah, syllables of faith!/Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity/Be still the same as when you walked the beach/Near Paumanok –your lone patrol–and heard the wraith/Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling…/For you, the panoramas and this breed of towers,/Of you, the theme that’s statured in the cliff./Oh Saunterer on free ways still ahead!” (41). It meant much, too, that I was reading and standing and sauntering and riding the subway in the city that is still so recognizably Crane’s: “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” (2). Oh, delirium of iambic pentameter!
A little later, as I read, an older white man standing next to me with a sign exposing the “fraud” of the debt crisis and handing out leaflets with copies of articles by Joe Nocera and Charles Blow from the New York Times (the first about a “foreclosure mill” where employees mocked those who lost their homes, the second headlined “America’s Exploding Pipe Dream”), turned to me and said, “What job could be better than standing and listening to a reading of Crane?” He also said, “I can only do about an hour and a half here. At 86 years of age, my back starts hurting me.” A South Asian man with plenty of gray in his eyebrows stopped and proposed to me that maybe it would be better to let the planet crash and burn right now than to “prolong the suffering for a few more hundreds of years.” “It’s got to happen,” he said. “It’s a scientific inevitability!” I couldn’t quite tell if he was expressing his own point of view or playing devil’s advocate, but fecklessly I quoted him Alice Walker: Life is better than death because it has fresh peaches in it. A 40-something black man who smiled and stopped to listen stayed around to talk, telling me that he comes down to the park all the time and loves the fact that people are speaking out. “What are some of your issues?” I asked him. “The economy. the corporations–the fact that they can just lay you off, and there’s nothing you can do, no other job to go to. There’s no loyalty. And then, the sub-prime mortgages. They say it’s our fault for taking out those loans. When Columbus set sail, he didn’t know where he was going to end up! Everybody has a right to dream….”
After, I ate my sandwich in City Hall Park and headed home over the glorious Bridge, now soaked through, for me, with Hart Crane’s vision of the city, and his ecstatic sense of linkage to poetries past.