Poetry Landmark: The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City

Year

2004
Poetry Landmark: The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City

Spanning the East River, between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the architectural grace and strength of the Brooklyn Bridge has been an inspiration to artists of all disciplines. Since its completion in 1883, numerous poets have paid tribute to the bridge and its neo-Gothic towers and lacework of steel wire.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac, in his "Brooklyn Bridge Blues," and Russian master Vladimir Mayakovsky in "Brooklyn Bridge," both wrote about themselves in the midst of the sociological swirl that surrounds the bridge. To Marianne Moore, the bridge was a piece of art. Its cables and caissons inspired the remarkable "Granite and Steel," in which she described the bridge as a:

way out; way in; romantic passageway
first seen by the eye of the mind,
then by the eye. O steel! O stone!
Climactic ornament, a double rainbow...

Hart Crane, who in his short life produced some of the twentieth century’s most layered and baroque poetry, was enthralled by the bridge and spent years on his book-length series of poems, The Bridge, which Harold Bloom called a “visionary epic.” The opening piece, "To Brooklyn Bridge," spirals with spiritual exaltation, such as:

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.

In 1878, Walt Whitman returned to his beloved city and saw the nearly complete bridge. He declared the visit provided "the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken—the grandest physical habitat and surroundings of land and water the globe affords—namely, Manhattan island and Brooklyn, which the future shall join in one city—city of superb democracy, amid superb surroundings."

Though written before the bridge was built, Whitman's poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" depicts the East River passage from the Fulton Ferry Landing, where the bridge’s anchorage now stands. It is a poem about traversing many boundaries, both physical and metaphysical. This experience is most fully realized each spring, when Poets House hosts its Bridge Walk. Just before sunset, scores of poetry lovers gather on the Manhattan side of the bridge and walk across en masse while reading poems about the bridge and the city. Once the group reaches the Fulton Ferry Landing, they listen to the entirety of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" read aloud as the sun sets behind the stunning arc of the bridge.