The Splendor of Hart Crane's Poetry

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • September 17, 2014

Several months ago, I visited the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. It was a hot day in early summer, and I was sleep-deprived, tired from walking, and a little anxious about the prospect of navigating New York City alone. By the time I reached the bridge, my journey had come to seem like a pilgrimage. Encased in the bridge’s colossal arches and rows of taut cables, I looked out over the East River and toward New York Harbor. Then I pulled The Complete Poems of Hart Crane out of my backpack, turned to the ode “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and began to read aloud. 

Hart Crane had perhaps the most outrageous life and career of any 20th-century American poet. Intensely lyrical in style, he produced dense and difficult verse that polarized his readers from the outset. Crane was unapologetically gay decades before the Stonewall riots, and his predilection for casual sex with sailors shocked his contemporaries. Familial discord, troubles with the law, and alcoholism plagued much of his short life. 

Tragically, Crane killed himself in 1932 by jumping off a ship that was taking him back to New York after a turbulent Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico. Yet even amid the tumult of his life, Crane was charismatic and creative enough to forge his own literary legacy, a legacy that became the stuff of myth when, at the age of 32, he disappeared forever beneath the Atlantic Ocean.  

Crane reached the peak of his very short career during the height of Modernism, when T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, among others, were working to expand the possibilities of literature to encompass what they saw as the fractured world of the early 20th century. When Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in 1922, with its bleak depiction of a society left disillusioned and hopeless after World War I, Crane complained that the poem was “so damned dead,” finding potential for optimism in places where Eliot saw only decay. Eliot’s poem ignited Crane’s career, spurring him to conceive of a different and particularly American approach to Modernism, one that feted human achievement and technological advancement, even in the midst of great change and social turbulence.

The apex of this vision is The Bridge, a long sequence of lyrics about America’s past, present, and future. The poem is remarkable in its engagement with the technology of the day—the train, subway, airplane, and cinema are all crucial figures, and the governing symbol of the sequence is the Brooklyn Bridge. Crane viewed the bridge as an immense work of art, a testament to the divine possibilities of human achievement, and saw in its magnificent leap over the East River a metaphor for the possibility of technological advancement to unify America. 

The Bridge is often understood as a monument to Crane’s optimism, a kind of anti-Waste Land. But though Crane challenges Eliot’s vision in the sequence, he is also acutely aware of the dangers and temptations of the modern world. At times, his insights are eerily prescient, as in this stanza from The Bridge’s breathtaking opening lyric, “To Brooklyn Bridge”: “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.” Crane is referring to 1920s movie theatres here, but I cannot help but think of the Internet when I read these lines, and particularly the addicting but often shallow pleasures of social media.

Crane’s increasing awe at the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge as the poem progresses tempers such sobering observations. “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” Crane exclaims, wondering how a structure so apparently divine in nature could have originated from human labor. The praises of the bridge become even more ecstatic and hymn-like in the closing lyric of the sequence “Atlantis,” where Crane describes the structure’s architecture with phrases like “crystal-flooded aisle,” “palladium helm of stars,” and “glistening fins of light.” He characterizes the bridge as a “steeled Cognizance,” an embodiment of intelligence and human achievement. 

Crane’s style sets him apart from his contemporaries as much as his vision. His poems combine Elizabethan language, British Romantic formal structures, and modern American subject matter, resulting in a body of work that is frequently difficult and sublimely different than anything else written in English. Reading his drafts reveals a discerning and meticulous intellect with a remarkable ear for verbal music; Crane’s relatively small poetic output is at least as much a result of his perfectionist approach to revision as it is of his alcoholism and difficult personal life. Every word in the final versions of Crane’s best poems is chosen with care, and his verbs in particular strike the reader with a remarkable potency.

Crane’s poetry remains relevant today as the pouring forth of an exceptional imagination, a visionary response to a time of uncertainty, and a record of gay life in America before Stonewall. Yet what I love most about Crane is the lyrical bedazzlement his verse offers the reader; few, if any, poets today have even attempted to reach his ecstatic heights of diction and pure ecstasy. It may be that Crane embodies what his contemporary Wallace Stevens called the “essential gaudiness” of poetry, but after reading The Bridge, it is hard to ever look at a suspension bridge again without sharing the poet’s awe.