Thomas A. Yingling: On "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge"

The problem of the modern, as it is figured at the outset of The Bridge, is the problem of motion, the problem for the homosexual who understands himself as displaced, the fact that nothing "stays" him. The epigraph to the epic is Satan’s statement of his dislocation from Job—"From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it"—and the poem presents the ultimate effect of this dip and pivot, this rootlessness and movement (here a "speechless caravan"), as suicide:

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.

In this figure of the bedlamite, we see one person crushed by the anonymity, the speechlessness, of what Waldo Frank called the impersonal, busy machine of New York: "The average New Yorker is caught in a Machine. He whirls along, he is dizzy, he is helpless. If he resists, the Machine will mangle him. If he does not resist, it will dazzle him first with its glittering reiteration, so that when the mangling comes he is past knowing. He says he is too busy, and wonders why. He means, that all preference to act is gone from him" [qtd. in (Frank, Our America, Boni & Liveright, 1919, p. 172]. We see the problem of movement without meaning in acts of business as well ("As apparitional as sails [sales] that cross / Some page of figures to be filed away") and even in the realm of mass-marketed pleasures that manipulate aesthetics in isolated and ultimately valueless scenes of fantasy:

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.

The modern world is, in the first half of this poem, an altogether alienating prospect.

But the second half of the poem finds "Vibrant reprieve and pardon" from this alienation in the presence and meaning of the bridge as a symbolic object. If we are rather strongly invited to see the bridge as a sign of the possibility of reunion even in such an alienating and fragmented landscape as the opening of the poem depicts, we are also invited to see the value of the bridge as its potential to absolve the citizens of the modern city from the burden of their anonymity, that which "time cannot raise." In exceeding its own functionality, in being an object of beauty and contemplative richness as well as a means to ‘shorter hours," the bridge transcends the strictly utilitarian and suggests that the subject under its sway might also transcend his mere utility in culture. It becomes a figure in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts, in which one may read the "Unfractioned idiom" (my italics) of a non-alienated existence. …

In naming the bridge a "harp and altar," and in declaring the desire that it "descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God," the text celebrates not some mystical Ouspenskian other world but the energy of human manufacture. If the bridge is likened here to God, we are invited to read in it a structure that centers all subjectivity: as Althusser claims, God is the Subject of subjects, and in the more positive movement of the poem’s second half, the bridge becomes the means to a very different form exchange:

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. …

This is an echo of the darkness that is Whitman’s figure for difficulty in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," a text that "To Brooklyn Bridge" strongly evokes. … In Crane’s opening poem to The Bridge, the homosexual is presented as marginal, as implicitly at odds with that daylight world where bridges represent primarily the means to quicker lunches, behaviorism, and toothpicks. But through his refusal of the realm of business as somehow the "real" locus of meaning for the bridge and for those written under its sign, the text undoes the city’s ability to "parcel," to fragment. For its homosexual subject, the bridge becomes a powerful scene of possibility and love (not only in providing a literal cruising place, "Under thy shadow by the piers I waited," but by offering itself as a symbol for the transformative structure of homoerotic experience as well): it becomes "Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge / Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry."

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Title Thomas A. Yingling: On "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas A. Yingling Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies
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