Poetry and The Brooklyn Bridge

By Jeremy Bunting

          Poetry and The Brooklyn Bridge For 126,000 New Yorkers, crossing the East River is part of the daily routine, but this commute has inspired countless poets over the last two centuries.1 Perhaps the two most famous of the East River poems are Walt Whitman’s 1856 work “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and Hart Crane’s 1930 piece “To Brooklyn Bridge.”23 By comparing and contrasting Whitman’s poem, written before the Brooklyn Bridge was built, to Hart Crane’s poem, written long after the bridge’s completion, modern readers can gain an insight into how the construction of the bridge affected contemporary culture’s perception of the East River before and after the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction.

Poetry and The Perception of The Brooklyn Bridge

          Walt Whitman’s cultural identity has long been synonymous with the crossing of the East River.4 His “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” much like J. W. Hill’s print “New York From Brooklyn Heights” (the subject of another essay on this website) [note: this text will link to the other essay once the site is up], emphasizes the East River as a divider between a commercial Manhattan and a residential Brooklyn. With the couplet, “On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose, /And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose,”5 Whitman acknowledges that Brooklyn is a place to “[return] home,” and will continue to be for “years hence.” By contrast, Crane, writing nearly 80 years later in 1930, makes no mention of Brooklyn itself, but does briefly reference sunlight passing over Wall Street in the lines, “Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks/A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene.”6 By alluding to Manhattan but not Brooklyn in a poem about a bridge that bears the latter borough’s namesake, Crane makes a similar statement as Whitman: Manhattan is the city center, while Brooklyn is secondary.

The East River

          While Whitman makes several references to the East River itself, Crane focuses primarily on the bridge above, not the river below. Indeed, in the first line of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman describes, “Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!” However, Crane neglects to mention the river until the last stanza, and even then, only in passing:

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.

One can surmise that this is due to the difference in proximity to the water of those walking the Brooklyn Bridge and those taking the ferry. While on the bridge, it is easy to become distracted by the details of the structure itself, the view of the city, and the sky. However, when taking the ferry, the water itself is the bridge. For this reason, the river is a perpetual presence for the passengers, who can see their reflection in its water and feel themselves move through its waves. This is reflected by Whitman’s references to the water’s current. In the third stanza, he writes, “Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.” Twice more in the poem, he describes the current as “rushing,” and “hasting.” While Whitman feels the water, Crane can only see it below. This distance, however, is dangerous. In his fifth Stanza, Crane describes the suicide of a “bedlamite:”

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.7

While Whitman grapples with the waters of the East River, Crane, who ironically committed suicide by jumping off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico,8 warns that the river should not be grappled with.

          Due to the difference in perspective, Whitman’s poem provides readers with far more details about the river itself than does Crane. Much like the prints of the era, Whitman’s East River is bustling with activity.9 In the ninth and final stanza of his poem, Whitman reminds the reader that his ferry is one of countless ships on the river: “Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail'd schooners, sloops, lighters! /Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower'd at sunset!” While Whitman does describe the river’s waters, it is always in reference to either his experience on the ferry or the other ships that sail them. Whitman does not write solely about the East River’s currents; he writes about the experience of moving through them. This distinction is important because it tells modern readers that the culture during Whitman’s lifetime did not value the river as a natural beauty, but as a means of transportation and commerce. While Crane does not mention sea vessels at all in his poem, he discusses transportation of a different kind. His ninth stanza describes the traffic of cars moving across the bridge, whose light he compares to “stars.” This traffic he calls a “condense eternity,” which tells the modern reader that by 1930 the Brooklyn Bridge was already densely populated by vehicles. However, this switch from sailors to drivers is not so much a shift in focus as a change of details. The East River is still a means of transportation; the only change is the means by which people are transported.


          Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge” are telling portraits of the East River’s role in society. They reveal to modern audiences that unlike the Hudson, the East River has never been valued for its own beauty, but for the beauty of the activity that centers around it. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge changed nothing about this, but instead provided poets with another source of inspiration, this one even more distinct from the waters of the East River themselves.

Bibliography

“Hart Crane.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/hart-crane

Crane, Hart. “To Brooklyn Bridge.” in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane ed. Brom Weber (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1933).

Haw, Richard. “American History/American Memory: Reevaluating Walt Whitman's Relationship with the Brooklyn Bridge.” Journal of American Studies 38.1 (2004): 1-22.

Hill, J.W. New York from Brooklyn. Artstor. 30 September 2011.

Nelson, Howard. “‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ 1856.” in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_10.html

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” (Philadelphia: Rees, Welsh, and Company, 1882).

Winters, Yvor. “The Progress of Hart Crane.” Poetry Foundation 36.3 (1930): 153-165.


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1 Eccording to the New York City Department of Transportation, “More than 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 bicyclists cross the Brooklyn Bridge every day.” http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bridges/brooklyn_bridge.shtml2

2 A Nelson, Howard. “‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ 1856.” in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_10.html.

3 Winters, Yvor. “The Progress of Hart Crane.” Poetry Foundation 36.3 (1930): 153-165.4 Haw, Richard. “American History/American Memory: Reevaluating Walt Whitman's Relationship with the Brooklyn Bridge.” Journal of American Studies 38.1 (2004): 1-22

4 Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” (Philadelphia: Rees, Welsh, and Company, 1882).

5 Crane, Hart. “To Brooklyn Bridge.” in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane ed. Brom Weber (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1933).

6 Crane, Hart. “To Brooklyn Bridge.” in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane ed. Brom Weber (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1933).

7 “Finally, in 1932, his despair turned all-consuming, and on April 27, while traveling by ship with Baird, Crane killed himself by leaping into the Gulf of Mexico.” “Hart Crane.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/hart-crane

8 Hill, J.W. New York from Brooklyn. Artstor. 30 September 2011.