“At times...I feel an enourmous power in me - that seems almost supernatural. If this power is not too dissipated in aggravation and discouragement I may amount to something sometime. I can say this now with perfect equanimity because I am notoriously drunk and the Victrola is going with that glorious Bolero.” – Hart Crane
The poet Hart Crane may not have been a Brooklyn native (as so many of us aren’t), but his time here would radically change not only his life, but American poetics as well. Born on July 21, 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, Crane moved to the city when he was 17, after dropping out of high school. But it wasn’t until 1924, when he arrived at 110 Columbia Heights that he began to “live in the shadow of that bridge.”
From his new apartment Crane had a perfect view of the bridge which would become the topic of his most famous work. He wrote to his mother:
“Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbor, and the marvelous beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshalled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live.”
The bridge itself would grow to encompass Crane’s world, symbolizing his success, when Otto H. Kahn offered him $2,000 to compose an epic poem called The Bridge. He accepted but he was an undisciplined creator and the bridge was an elusive muse. An outsider who sought anonymous sex with sailors, Crane’s encounters often led to brutal beatings. Drinking heavily, struggling with the poem (he had an end but no beginning) and running out of money, Crane followed his lover Emil Opffer, Jr. to Los Angeles. But by 1928 he was back in New York, first at 77 Willow Street and then again at 110 Columbia Heights, before flitting off to Paris in 1929.
Paris was good to Crane and while he was there Harry and Caresse Crosby offered to publish The Bridge on their press, Black Sun Press. Upon accepting the offer, Crane started to celebrate, a bit too much, at Cafe Select. He argued with the waiters over the bill, then with the police, and was subsequently arrested.
Returning to Brooklyn, Crane came back to Columbia Heights, this time in a basement apartment at 130 where he finally finished The Bridge.
...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....
The poem won Poetry magazine’s Helen Haire Levinson Prize followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship for its author. Under the Fellowship, Crane headed to Mexico, ready to write, when tragedy struck. A trifecta of difficulties - his father’s death, his mother withholding his inheritance and an affair (probably the only heterosexual affair of his life) with the wife of his friend - led to a severe depression.
On April 27, 1932, crossing the Gulf of Mexico on the Orizaba, Crane was beaten up after making an unwelcome pass at a crew member. Just before noon, drunk and despondent, he walked into Peggy Cowley's cabin in pajamas and a topcoat and said, "I'm not going to make it, dear. I'm utterly disgraced." Accustomed to such remarks, she told him to go get dressed. He agreed, said goodbye, headed for the stern and climbed the railing of the ship. He shouted “Goodbye everybody!” and threw himself overboard.
Hart Crane was 32 years old. His body was never found.
After his death, his poem The Bridge would divide critics. It brought lofty comparisons to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as well as deep criticism. The New Yorker found it, “an impressive failure. . .[that] varies wildly in quality, containing some of Crane’s best writing and some of his worst.”
But what did the poet think of his work, and about the majestic structure that so captivated him?
“The very idea of a bridge is an act of faith. The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I'm at a loss to explain my delusion that there exists any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it.”
Evan Hughes, in his book Literary Brooklyn, summarized Crane's death with the following:
"In his personal life, Crane was probably too well-aligned with the New York City of the 1920s. Of that time in the city, Fitzgerald wrote, "The catering to dissipation set an example to Paris; the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early." So it was for Crane, who crashed along with the twenties when the dark thirties came. In his work, however, Crane bucked the tide of his times. The roar of the capitalist economy held no appeal for him, and he set himself against "shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks." But rather than embrace the pessimism of the poetic age of Eliot, he embraced an "ecstatic goal." His dramatic death, often mined for meaning, obscures his wider significance; he grew into greatness in an era that was out of step with his ideals."