Amusing Monday: Finding a pathway to enjoy great poetry

I’ve been reading at least one poem a day for awhile, thanks to the American Academy of Poets, which delivers a poem by email each day of the week. Anyone can sign up for this service, called Poem-a-Day.

One poem I read a few months back has stayed with me, and I’ve read it again and again. It’s called “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane, and it is part of a “long-form” poem presented in a book published in 1930. I was captured by the mysterious symbolism, as I struggled to piece together what the narrator was observing and what Crane was saying in his lyrical manner. Here’s the poem, followed by some personal observations about writing:

To Brooklyn Bridge

By Hart Crane, 1899-1932

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

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;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

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.

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.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

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.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

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.

“To Brooklyn Bridge” apparently is one of the poems by American poets studied in college courses, but I never encountered it before. It offers a challenge of interpretation that was sometimes within my grasp but often just out of reach. I eventually succumbed to seeking out analyses of the poem by others, and I found it mentioned in a number of student study guides. I was drawn to a description by Schmoop.com, which includes this comment:

“Published in 1930, The Bridge was panned by many for being too darned difficult and wordy. We’ll say it straight up: This poem, like much of Crane’s work, is incredibly difficult in the sense of, ‘What the heck is this guy even talking about?’ But the payoff is worth it, because Crane is such a master of language that you’ll be carried away by the emotion and musicality of the poem even when you’re scratching your head. (Don’t worry – Shmoop is here to keep your head-scratchings to a minimum.)”

If you read on in the study guide, you learn about the stark, literal meanings in the poem, at least from Shmoop’s perspective. It did help me to fill in some blanks and complete the puzzle in one sense, but I rushed back to read the poem with its imaginative images and rhythmical style.

An audio recording of the poem accompanied by music and images can be enjoyed in the first video on this page. The second video is from Annenberg Media’s series “Voices & Visions,” which describe the life and work of 13 of America’s most famous modern poets.

Poetry is much different from news writing, of course. When writing about complex issues, I try to explain the concepts in a simple way without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Helping people go deep into a subject is like adding layers, one by one, while staying on firm ground. I try to be explicit, leaving little to the imagination.

Poetry is about describing things in ways that have never been said before, to encourage the reader to think and feel about things while stretching the imagination. Poetry can help writers of all kinds find a voice that is both familiar and grounded, yet imaginative and exciting.

I’ve written a lot about bridges and culverts and salmon-passage problems — the physical structures, the engineering challenges and the dynamic forces of water. But bridges also serve as a powerful symbol of change, representing movement from one place to another, passage of time from past to present to future, and, for some, a transcendence to a higher spiritual consciousness.

As one analyst mentioned in the Study Tiger guide:

“As mankind could build the Brooklyn Bridge in physical space, Crane seems to be saying that mankind can build the same kind of ‘bridge’ in their spiritual life to find a connection to God. Because Crane never states these poetic themes explicitly but leaves them for the reader to discover themselves, the act of reading and studying Crane’s lines can be thought of an another type of bridge, where learning the meaning of the poem is ‘walking across’ the bridge to a new kind of knowledge.”

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