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New York: The Writer in the Powerhouse

1.

From my windows on the Upper West Side I look out on buildings that clash so violently in age, style, size, shape, color, and purpose that I must locate myself within this mad geometry. Upright parallelograms run into one another and finally absorb one another into a dizzying urban mix. When young I studied the city from the family fire escape, the neighboring roof, from the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenue El passing between open windows of ancient tenements in which people showed their lives, like their bedding, on the windowsill. Now the heavens are as crowded as the earth. Bridges travel between buildings; police helicopters patrolling the unending highway stream will soon swoop down on the errant driver; satellities already rusted and outworn impinge on fresh ones no doubt already capable of hearing conversations in the bedroom. The twentieth century is finally here. Exactly as previsioned in the “Amazing Stories” I used to read as a boy. But what the utopian fantasists of the early century did not guess was that the nineteenth century would still be with us. Up on Amsterdam Avenue, not yet “gentrified,” there are old German Lutheran old-age homes, green with decay and surrounded by the leftovers of Hispanic poverty, that remind us of the many discarded churches that serve only as obstructions to the real-estate lobby.

Henry James on his return to his birth-place in 1905 noted the “increasing invisibility of New York churches.” The end-of-century scene on the Upper West Side is a picture now so crammed that the crowdedness itself is the fact most omnipresent and therefore hardest to describe, and certainly to love. I can take in only the outline of the daily friction and threatfulness of New York, the undeclared state of war that will suddenly flash out in the subway over a dropped newspaper and leave behind bodies broken, dead, while the spectators flee the police.

Strange how little of this mad crowdedness, the very fever of our daily lives, gets into the best writing about the city. Loneliness, secrecy, introspection are the understandable response to so much mass in friction. As opposed to the daily death headline in the New York Post—RAPIST KILLED BY MOM AS KIDS WATCH—the most sensitive writing naturally describes a writer’s vulnerability rather than the weight of all these opposed races, classes, theologies, and social habits. Photography can aim at this crowd as the writer may be afraid to. The news photographer Weegee did a famous shot, July 28, 1940, 4 PM, as he proudly noted, of a million people at Coney Island. There is no sand to be seen. But photography can earn its short-lived triumph at too emphatic a price of professional indifference and even malice. Journalistic photography must glide over what it attempts to “reproduce.”

Unsere ist eine optische Zeit read the sign over the ruins of postwar Cologne. “Ours is a visual period.” The irony was not intentional. At the same time in New York, abstract expressionism made the city “the capital of modern art.” This international favorite in no small degree was rooted in the rediscovery of their native land, New York, by many painters of immigrant stock, who had been radicals and children of the Depression, but now throbbed in expansive postwar New York to the violent colorfulness of New York streets and sky. “Action painting” was inspirational in its sense of newfound power, its typical New York aggressiveness. The idea is “to fuck up the canvas,” said the critic Harold Rosenberg. He explained that “Action painting, like the new atomic physics, has the power to release trapped energy, to set great forces at work at liberty for good and evil.” The new painting was wonderful in the subversive colors and rhythms that breathed the variety and excitement of New York, a town where native sons notoriously gape in wonder and feel like recent arrivals. It was even more wonderful in the cachet of expensiveness it soon acquired. Long before environmental art sought to loop hillsides together, the new painting became favorite images on executive walls, the nonpareil example of ostentatious investment and consumption for the newly rich. Who identified with painters because they were newly rich.

By contrast, much of the poetry of the same period turns out to be very pale. It had become easy to write, for as Freud didn’t have to say, internal consciousness, unlike the external world, is always on tap.

Oneself I sing, a simple separate person
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Only Whitman among New York writers a century ago sought the crowd as a correlative to his “ongoing soul.” Whitman even called Leaves of Grass a city, just as Auden called Eros the founder of cities. “I can hardly tell you why,” Whitman wrote after the Civil War to his friend William O’Connor, “but feel very positively that if anything can justify my revolutionary attempts & utterances, it is such ensemble—like a great city to modern civilization & a whole combined cluttering paradoxical unity, a man, a woman.” Whitman’s lovable archaic myth was that New York was a true community made by the future as well as the present. It was not just a legal tie. In the most expressive poem I know about New York as an ideal, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman portrayed himself as one of a crowd. And the crowd on the ferry between Fulton Street in Brooklyn and Fulton Street in Manhattan was as alive and irresistible, because it gave scope to the poet in its midst, as the tidal movements of the East River. Of course Whitman could feel separated from the life around him:

I too felt the curious abrupt ques- tionings stir within me,…
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution….

He had faith in you, his future reader, as much as in the crowd around him.

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

So he had put into “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” “the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river”—the crowd entering the gates of the ferry, the shipping of Manhattan and the heights of Brooklyn, the winter seagulls floating with motionless wings but in slow-wheeling circles and their gradual edging toward the south, the shadowy group of steam tug, barges, hay boat, belated lighter, the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night, their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

At the end of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” these city surfaces reveal themselves as the “dumb, beautiful ministers”—the “appearances” of places that wait, that always wait. “We fathom you not”—he cries at the very end—“we love you—there is perfection in you also,” because “Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.” The most ordinary day-to-day fixtures of the landscape can be absorbed into the deepest urges of our being. Such a connection was to be grasped out of the tidal heart of being in New York. As Yeats said, belief makes the mind abundant. Whitman’s genius was to cast an erotic haze over his confidence in radical democracy. Besides, he had nowhere to go but up, this child of Brooklyn streets who learned from street pals the bravado that enabled his poems to make conjunction not only with the most ordinary materials but with the immortality of the earth itself.

Seventy years later Hart Crane in Whitman’s Brooklyn set out in the proem to The Bridge a more wistful effort at connection with New York’s fullness:

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,—

In the fifteen sections of the poem he aimed to envelop American history stemming westward from Brooklyn Bridge, the actual setting the dream-long day from dawn in “The Harbor Dawn” to midnight in “Atlantis.” Through the dream, the single day takes in vast stretches of time and space: from a subway ride in the morning to a railroad journey to the Mississippi, then going beyond De Soto to the primeval world of the Indians, then forward to the West of the pioneers.

Like so many American poets before and after him, Crane conceived an epic poem about American history as personal myth rather then ongoing narrative. It was not the poets out the “romancers”—Melville in Moby-Dick and Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn—who captured in consecutive stories the strain and hardihood of the national experience. What Crane really expressed in his effort to turn Brooklyn Bridge into all-American history was the material confidence of the 1920s. Lindbergh, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, the Florida boom, the first cross-country highway system. The Empire State Building was climbing a story a day to the height of 102 floors. Stifling in an advertising agency, Crane admitted, “Maybe I’m just a little jealous of Lindy.” To Waldo Frank in 1926 he also admitted:

Intellectually judged, the whole theme and project seem more and more absurd, these forms, materials, dynamics are simply non-existent in the world…. The bridge today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks.

A month later, having composed the proem, “I feel an absolute music in the air again, and some tremendous rondure floating somewhere.” The proem provides so powerful an entrance to The Bridge that the forced eloquence of the rest, with random shots of American history yoked together hit and miss by Crane’s amazingly chromatic straining of language, is an inevitable letdown. Crane by a fortunate accident had come to live at 110 Columbia Heights overlooking the lower East River. There, Washington Roebling, son of the bridge’s master builder, John Augustus Roebling, had directed the actual completion of his father’s bridge from the wheelchair to which he was consigned by the paralysis he suffered. The concluding section of The Bridge, “Atlantis,” opens powerfully:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,—
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel—
Transparent meshes—fleckless the gleaming staves—
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings…

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One are synoptic of all tides below—

Crane said of this, “I have attempted to induce the same feelings of elation, etc.—like being carried forward and upward simultaneously—both in imagery, rhythm and repetition, that one experiences in walking across my beloved Brooklyn Bridge.” What is personal and even intimate in the opening and closing sections of The Bridge seems more lasting than all the rest.

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