Time’s rendings, time’s blendings they construe
As final reckonings of fire and snow…
(from “The River” in The Bridge)
Hart Crane (1899-1932) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a well-to-do chocolate manufacturer who expected his son to follow his footsteps into the family business. That didn’t happen; Crane had no intention of that happening. Instead, he turned his attention to what he was most interested in: writing—especially poetry.
His most well-known work is The Bridge, a series of poems on the American experience. In a sense, he was trying to write the Great American Poem, much like his novelist peers were trying to write the Great American Novel, which might have already been written (Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885) (I realize that a parenthetical statement like that may cause controversy). Critics immediately found fault with The Bridge, for all kinds of reasons. They still do.
I had never read the entire work until recently. In high school, our junior English class read a few excerpts from the volume, which includes short poems on Rip Van Winkle, the Brooklyn Bridge (a kind of homage to Walt Whitman), Powhatan’s daughter, the Mississippi River, Cape Hatteras and a number of other subjects. As The Poetry Foundation’s entry on Crane points out, it was perhaps inevitable that the Great American Poem would fall short of its goals. He intended The Bridge to be a kind of response or alternative to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; 85 years later, we’re far more familiar with The Waste Land than The Bridge.
I saw the frontiers gleaming of his mind;
Or are there frontiers—running sands sometimes
Running sands—somewhere—sands running…
Or they may start some white machine that sings.
(from “Cutty Sark” in The Bridge)
Crane had a number of influences—Whitman, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the English Romantic poets, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce, among them. He also had a number of “anti-influences, ” including his parents, his antipathy to working in business, and Cleveland. His life wasn’t long; he killed himself by jumping from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico in 1932.
And if they take your sleep away sometimes
They give it back again. Soft sleeves of sound
Attend the darkling harbor, the pillowed bay;
Somewhere out there in blankness steam
Spills into steam, and wanders, washed away…
(from “The Harbor Dawn” in The Bridge)
I find the poems of The Bridge to be of a piece with the period of American literature I connect most strongly with—the ages of Realism and Modernism, roughly from 1890 to 1960. I can almost pinpoint the literary start of my connection—in eighth grade, reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in my reading class. Three years later, I was reading The Great Gatsby by Hemingway’s antithesis, F. Scott Fitzgerald. That year, my junior year in high school, I wrote my term paper on the Realists, focusing on Willa Cather, Jack London, and Edith Wharton.
And the poets: Edgar Lee Masters and Spoon River Anthology, which I still periodically reread; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Edwin Arlington Robinson; T.S. Eliot (we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land in senior high school English class); Dylan Thomas; Wallace Stevens (I never knew how taken I would be by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“); the World War I poets. And Robert Frost.
I came to William Faulkner in my 30s, when I read The Sound and the Fury for the first time. And then I read everything he wrote, some works twice and three times.
I’ve often asked myself why this literary period has had the most impact on me, and I keep coming back to two answers.
First, I had outstanding English teachers in junior high and high school. They were a diverse and eclectic group, but what they shared was a love for literature. And they had been shaped in their literary education by the Realists and the Modernists; these were the novelists and poets they loved best. Looking back, I can see that their love, a love sometimes bordering on reverence (and occasional mania), was transmitted to me.
Under the shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is the shadow clear.
The city’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…
(From “To Brooklyn Bridge” in The Bridge)
Second, and equally important, this was the period my father came of age. He was born in 1916 in a small town in central Louisiana; a few years later the family moved to Shreveport, where my grandfather ran a small grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks. My father wanted to be a doctor, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression ended that dream. Instead, he went to work as a roughneck in the East Texas oilfields.
But he loved newspapers; he had delivered newspapers as a boy and he knew people at the Shreveport Journal. He landed in the circulation department and worked there until he joined the Navy in World War II. He kept a diary during his war years; as it turns out, he was also his ship’s newsletter editor. Somehow he parlayed all of that after the war into a job with a trade magazine publishing firm in New Orleans.
This was the Promised Land, and still it is
To the persuasive suburban land agent
In bootleg roadhouses where the gin fizz
Bubbles in time to Hollywood’s new love-nest pageant.
(From “Quaker Hill” in The Bridge)
I have young childhood memories of going to plays—community theater—with my parents. I can vaguely recall a staging of The Music Man. My father actually had a role in a local production of Bus Stop by William Inge; he played the bus driver. I have a photograph of him and the rest of the cast.
We were never close; he was that silent, World War II generation that didn’t believe in showing much emotion or feeling, especially for sons. I was the middle of three boys, the one he and my mother didn’t have to worry about, the one who studied and didn’t cause trouble or get into fights.
And so I know myself well enough to know that my love for the literary eras of the Realists and the Modernists was not simply because of my teachers and their love for the periods. Reading and studying the poetry and novels of the era is also a way, for me, to try to understand my father, the man I didn’t know very well but who had a powerful influence on my life, including my selection of study in college—journalism.
To read Faulkner is to read not only small-town Mississippi but also small-town Louisiana. To read Spoon River Anthology is to walk in the old cemetery in Shreveport where my grandparents are buried. To read The Waste Land is to read how the world of the 1920s was torn asunder in the world of the 1930s, and the impact that sundering likely had on my father.
It’s difficult of me to read The Bridge and see the failure that most of the critics have seen. Instead, I read it, and I see a young man from the poor side of town, sitting in a high school Latin class with all of the rich kids, studying hard because he was still holding on to the dream of becoming a doctor.
And one star, swinging, takes it place, alone,
Cupped in the larches of the mountain pass—
Until, immortally, it bled into the dawn.
(From “Powhatan’s Daughter” in The Bridge)
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish