Tuesday, December 15, 2009

37 Years Later - The Brooklyn Bridge

In 1972, I was at Duke University studying British and American literature. For me, it was an intense time of learning and personal growth. Since I didn't have the typical undergraduate preparation in English, Duke made an exception to allow me to take graduate-level courses. I was in way over my head. To catch up, I had to study my ass off. I read a novel every day for several months, wrote 200 pages of essays each semester, and struggled to ask questions in class without exposing my ignorance.

And it worked. At some point, I knew what the professors were talking about, and I knew what I was talking about. Ultimately, I focused on 20th century American literature. And I discovered Hart Crane's poetry. Crane isn't considered one of the great American poets. He was an unstable alcoholic, and in 1932 he committed suicide at the age of 33. But his book-length poem, The Bridge, is considered a classic.

Most of his poetry about America and New York City was written from memory, while living in the Caribbean. The poem I remember best is "To Brooklyn Bridge." When as a young man I read his ecstatic description of the bridge, I remember thinking, "Someday, I want to experience Brooklyn Bridge myself, the way Hart Crane saw it." The last three stanzas of "To Brooklyn Bridge" are quoted below...

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.

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.

I would visit the city several times later in life, but I failed to fulfill that promise to myself. That is, until Thanksgiving weekend, 2009. On Sunday my son said, "What do you want to do today?"

I said, "I want to walk the Brooklyn Bridge." And so we did. I had seen it a few times from a distance, but I wanted to walk the length of it.

On the bridge at noon, I took my time and just let everything sink in. I watched the people. I listened to the traffic. I put my hands on the support cables and looked up as the sun blazed through the soaring network. I thought about the workers who died during its construction. I reminded myself that these were the same cables the young poet's awareness captured in the mid-1920s.



I was finally doing what I wanted so much to do 37 years ago. I probably shouldn't have waited so long. But there I was, taking it all in. And it was worth it.

3 comments:

Sean said...

Whenever I visit the Brooklyn Bridge it always amazes that such a marvel could have been built over 130 years ago, without the benefit of modern construction techniques or mechanical engineering... and yet it still stands strong today.

Denny Coates said...

Yes, Sean, it's amazing such a solid design can support four lanes of busy New York traffic all day, day after day.

PLUS, it's beautiful to look at. To me, that's the real marvel...

Jen Kuhn said...

Hi Denny,
What an inspirational story: from your tenacity to "catch up" to the standards at Duke University to the inspiration evoked by a poem.
Maybe the 37 year old promise to yourself was a gift that you were ready to receive. Your perspective, 37 years later, may have enhanced the experience and created such a significant moment.
Thank you for always sharing from the heart,
Jen