An American Voice

With this volume, Hart Crane joins Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens in the Library of America publications of twentieth-century poets. Crane can be easily fitted into their eight-hundred-page format since his total poetic output, including unpublished poems, amounts to only a hundred and fifty pages; so the bulk of the volume is a very full selection of his letters, plus a few essays and reviews. Langdon Hammer, the editor, has not only written an excellent book on modernism in the works of Crane and his friend Allen Tate, but previously edited a handsome volume of Crane’s letters with generous commentary. Now he provides a useful and extensive chronology as well as pertinent biographical and textual notes. One couldn’t ask for a more compact and finished presentation of the poet who may be the most problematic of his contemporaries-Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and T. S. Eliot, along with those, mentioned above, already enshrined in the Library of America.

In his earlier book, Hammer says shrewdly that although Crane has been judged to be a major modern poet since around 1960, the many books of criticism written about his poetry have always felt the need to reintroduce him. (Probably the best of these books, by Warner Berthoff, is titled Hart Crane: A Re-Introduction.) This need, I should guess, has everything to do with the difficult brilliance any reader meets in coming up against Crane’s poems for the first-or any subsequent-time, for both as wholes and as particular sequences they are characteristically hard to grasp. Early on Crane knew what he was seeking in the poetry he wished to write. At the beginning of 1922, when he was twenty-two years old, living in Cleveland and working as a copywriter, he wrote the novelist Sherwood Anderson, who had recently published Winesburg, Ohio, about the thrill of reading John Donne. Quoting lines from two of Donne’s poems, he tells Anderson:

What I want to get is just what is so beautifully done in this poem, an “interior” form, a form that is so thorough and intense as to dye the words themselves with a peculiarity of meaning, slightly different from the ordinary definition of them separate from the poem.

He adduces his own poem “Black Tambourine” (“The interests of a black man in the cellar”) as an instance of such interior form. A few months later he sent Gorham Munson, a New York acquaintance to whom he wrote frequently, a “tentative beginning” to what would be his three-part poem “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:

The mind has shown itself at times

Too much the baked & twisted dough,

Food for the accepted multitude.

The mind is brushed by sparrow wings;

Rebuffed by asphalt, numbers crowd

The margins of the day, accent the curbs,

Convoying diverse dawns on every corner

To druggist, barber, and tobacconist.

Crane called “Faustus and Helen” a “metaphysical attempt,” and in his book on Crane’s poetry, R. W. Lewis devoted forty pages to explicating it. But though Crane eventually revised the lines he sent Munson, their “peculiarity of meaning” resulting from the poet’s “dyeing of the words” not only resists definitive paraphrase but resists it in part through a lack of the dramatic tone of meaning we expect to meet in lyrics by Hardy or Frost or Yeats. Crane’s lines typically lack the “special posture” Frost thought a poem’s lines should have; instead they present themselves more coolly as utterance detached from any particular speaker, any certifiably human presence. They are just there, not quite abiding our uncertainties of response. Berthoff correctly calls “Faustus and Helen” Crane’s most “problematic” poem, but it is also just an extreme instance of what is generally the case with Crane and of what is central to his intractability.

Allen Tate, who wrote a prefatory note to Crane’s first book, White Buildings (1926), noted that by contrast with the occasional opacity of his verse, Crane’s letters were written “in a clear and always lucid prose.” Reading through them in this volume enforces the rightness of Tate’s judgment. Whether he is painstakingly and painfully trying to clear or improve the air between himself and his divorced parents, or defending himself to Yvor Winters after Winters’s devastating review of his second book, The Bridge, Crane writes with scrupulousness, tact, and ironic humor. The only letters that make for really depressing reading are the ones of humiliation and apology written, during the ill-fated year in Mexico that preceded his suicide, to friends he had embarrassed or insulted by drunken behavior. Earlier his correspondence is full of the enthusiastic reading discoveries he made in his autodidact’s course of study-of Ben Jonson, Dostoevsky, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost (“a good, clean artist, however lean”), and many others. In these letters the sensibility that, in Tate’s words, was “locked-in” as it encountered “ordinary forms of experience” feels exploratory and free, even urbane. Unlike so many poets, Crane remained free of the nastier competitive envies and jealousies.

The history of Crane’s reputation is an odd one. He was first taken up, sometimes with the highest praise, by poet-critics like Tate and Winters. But later Winters decided that Crane’s most ambitious work, The Bridge, was, however heroic, a failure. Another severe essay, following on Tate and Winters, by R. P. Blackmur, treated him as employing “an extreme mode of free association” that made paraphrase of his work unhelpful. Decades later, Harold Bloom’s attempt to reinstate Crane along with Stevens as the most significant modern romantic poets in the post-Emersonian line (Bloom rhapsodized over what he called Crane’s “orphic quest”) generated perhaps more heat than light, but it did send readers to the poet once again. Coupling Crane with Stevens is useful, not only because both are often obscure, their “logic of metaphor” (Crane’s phrase) a challenge that at least this reader often falls short of meeting, but also because both wrote a poetry of splendid rhetoric. Yeats said memorably that we make poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves, but there is no quarrel in Crane’s verse. Its sole “argument” is between the poet and eternity, as at the conclusion to “Voyages II”: “Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The sea’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.”

Robert Lowell, who wrote a poem about Crane (“Words for Hart Crane”), called “Voyages II” a “love poem with a great confusion of images that are emotionally clear”; paraphrase could give no impression of such a poem. So much of Crane that stays in the mind and ear consists of rhetorical three- or four-line sequences-or single lines that lodge themselves permanently in the reader’s mind. A few examples:

The apples, Bill, the apples!

“Sunday Morning Apples”

Scatter these well-meant idioms

Into the smoky spring that fills

The suburbs, where they will be lost.

“Praise for an Urn”

I heard wind flaking sapphire, like this summer,

And willows could not hold more steady sound.

“Repose of Rivers”

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile

Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height

The imagination spans beyond despair,

Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

“For the Marriage of
Faustus and Helen”

Beyond siroccos harvesting

The solstice thunders, crept away,

Like a cliff swinging or a sail

Flung into April’s inmost day-

“Voyages VI”

The Bridge is of course packed with such lines and sequences-so much so that (though like Winters and Tate I can perceive no overall pattern of unification in the fifteen poems) there are enough moments of original composition to more than make up for a larger meaning which, even if discovered, might not prove so interesting. By common consent, the close of “The River” is Crane at his finest, its rhythm and rhyme combining in powerful quatrains that seem to embody the Mississippi:

The River lifts itself from its long bed,

Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow

Tortured with history, its one will-flow!

-The Passion spreads in wide tongues, choked and slow,

Meeting the Gulf, hosannas silently below.

Whatever one’s verdict about The Bridge, Tate’s encomium to Crane twenty years after his death is there to ponder, under the stimulus of this new volume:

By the time he was twenty-five...he had written a body of lyric poetry which for originality, distinction, and power, remains the great poetic achievement of his generation. If he is not our twentieth-century poet as hero, I do not know where else to look for him.

Published in the 2007-04-06 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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