Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hart Crane's Sexual Bridge

I want to start out with the text of Hart Crane’s The Bridge. The Bridge was published in 1930 and was Crane’s most widely read and praised work. It was also his last as he committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 33. The Bridge is seen by Crane as a singular long poem that is broken into eight parts. All of the parts have strong formal elements at play and all are reaching to defining and participating in an “American” poetic aesthetic. Most of this I knew before picking up The Bridge to read last week. I didn’t know how homoerotic this text was. That’s where I’ll begin thinking about it now.

The middle two parts of this poem, “Cutty Sark” and “Cape Hatteras,” are in different ways as sexual as much of Whitman’s work. The narrative of “Cutty Sark” is meeting a man at the docks in New York City. Crane begins, “I met a man in South Street, tall--/a nervous shark tooth swung on his chain.” He then describes the man’s green eyes “forgot to look at you/or left you several blocks away--”. The next parts of this poem, Crane captures the drunken impressions of the experience in brief and fleeting song lyrics and overheard snippets of conversation. This montage is orgiastic in both it’s conception and poetic execution. Lines like, “O life’s a geyser--beautiful--my lungs--/No--I can’t live on land--!”, lead to this orgasmic conclusion,

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.

The poets continues on through this experience at the docks leading to this final four lines

--he lunged up Bowery way while the dawn
was putting the Statue of Liberty out -- that
torch of hers you know--

I started walking home across the Bridge. . .

I am struck reading these passages how the language of the experience of public gay male sexuality from the 1920s as captured her in the poetic artifice is not so different from the language and imagery of public gay male sexuality from my own coming out in the 1980s and 1990s. The docks in New York and the Bowery both spaces where white machines continued to sing and the geyser of life sang beautifully until we walked home to Brooklyn or Jersey.

While “Cutty Sark” is a meditation on public sex (and concludes I think with the loneliness of these encounters as the sailors “turned and left us on the lee”), “Cape Hatteras” is a love poem to Walt Whitman. I read it as a sonnet sequence of sixteen sonnets, the classic cycle for love poems. Crane, however, assumes immediately an intimacy with Whitman at the end of the fir sonnet, writing, “Or to read you, Walt,--knowing us in thrall//to that deep wonderment”. The direct address of Whitman by his first name, with the easy intimacy, an intimacy that is not previously assumed in the poetic cycle, but that seems to suit both Crane and the addressee. This emotional intimacy only intensifies over the length of the poem. By the fourth sonnet, Crane writes,

Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok -- your long patrol -- and heard the wraith
Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling. . .

This love poem to Whitman is counterpointed with the location to which Crane has transported us. Cape Hatteras is the site of the Wright brothers’ first experimentation with flight. Thus in the center of the poem about The Bridge, a both real and mythic object that provides movement and stability, Crane recounts another real and mythic object of movement and industrialization. The poem ends with a paean to both the airplane and to Walt, “A foot again, and onward without halt,--/not soon, nor suddenly,--no, never to let go/ My hand/ in yours, Walt Whitman --/ so--”.

After reading this, I encountered Yingling with a degree of ambivalence when one of his central questions is, “What would constitute the study of homosexuality as a textual system in the current climate of theoretical concerns? How may homosexuality be organized as a system of inquiry that moves beyond the question of thematics to the problem of representation?” Part of my response to both questions is, did you read the text? I don’t read Crane as as Yingling suggest “less a matter of self-expression and more a matter of coding.” Crane - and Whitman - might have done better if they were more encoded. Though this may just be me as a reader - always looking for the sex. Beyond the flippancy, I actually found Yingling quite useful and having just read Martin’s book The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry it is interesting to think about the leaps in writing and thinking about “homosexual”/gay & lesbian/queer poetics from Martin (1979) to Yingling (1990) to this moment. Yingling goes to semiotics to examine Crane’s homosexuality in his poetics, a move that I wouldn’t make at this particular moment, he excavates the connections between Crane and Whitman in interesting ways and I was interested in how he talked about Crane’s mimesis in the opening lines. How do we read silence and heterosexual mimicry in Crane’s work?

Finally, I’m very interested in Waldo Frank’s introduction to The Bridge. I have to admit, I was laughing out loud while reading it. It is tonally different than most introductions I’m used to reading and his hagiography of both Crane and himself fascinated me.


JCM said...

Hello Ms. Enszer,

I was very interested in your post--you suggest some readings I haven't encountered before. Though it might be a bit elementary for you, you might be interested in the site of annotations to The Bridge that I put up when I had to struggle my way through it in grad school. It's at



Julie R. Enszer said...

Hi, James,

Thanks for your comment and the link. I am going to pass it along to a friend of mine who is preparing a paper for presentation on the Bridge as I type.

I had forgotten that Mariani did the Crane biography. I am reading his biography of William Carlos Williams now.

All best,


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Anonymous said...

more like struggled your way through grade school. how elementary. accusing yet another suicidal writer of being gay. how creative. and now you may send your counter. and of course you will because your ego is unveiled. how juvenile

Anonymous said...

('s not an "accusation." he was gay. pretty elementary of you. you should read up before you make judgements like that. the information is on wikipedia (or anywhere else that knows anything about Crane)--im sure that will suffice for you.
Ms. Enszer--i found your post to be really interesting and thought-provoking. thanks!