It is too easy at this time to be a canting adorer of Crane’s poems; or a pedant who falls upon his work as if he had not eaten a full meal for a week. Crane combined music, color and sound and made of them the “prayer of pariah.” His concern with sensations perfectly wrought and gemmed in his mind like the sapphire, emerald, or ruby in Paradise, paradoxically resulted in many of his most turbid lines. Oddly enough he quoted limpid lines from the Book of Job, Tamburlaine the Great, The Alchemist, or a poem from Emily Dickinson, while he himself hurled thundering and forked diction at his auditors. He would have burnt Troy for a memorable stanza and swallowed Hell’s sulphur to be laureled a poet. One should allege straightway that his genius was a parcel of the gargantuan follies in White Buildings and The Bridge. At times there is no grammar in his verse, or he employs, to make an oxymoron, an heroical bathos. I have prowled sundry volumes to understand his poems, which are pages of bedlamite shrieks of a soul sunk like Atlantis, and then there are those green sea cries towering out of the foam. He could be a syntactical zany as is apparent in some of the passages I have culled from The Bridge:
Into the bulging bullion, harnessed jelly of the stars
lead-perforated fuselage, escutcheon- ed wings lift agonized quittance
Ghoul-mound of man’s perversity at balk
And Klondike edelweiss of occult snows!
And white legs waken salads in the brain.
The conscience navelled in the plunging wind,
Umbilical to call—
As a Café Dome expatriate he dropped into rapturous USA jargon:
Stick your patent name on a sign-board brother—all over—going west—young man Tintex-Japalac—
But then who can be the surd adder after these fleshed locutions: “Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails…” Or not pity the spirit, thirty years old, only thirty-five months from his Caribbean winding-sheet: “…snow submerges an iron year.” Hear this lachrymal expletive: “wounds that we wrap in theorems.” And this could have been the magic of a Fletcher or a Tourneur: “Like pearls that whisper through the Doge’s hands.” Or remain immune, if you can, to this canorous rhetoric:
…take this sheaf of dust upon your tongue.
Ask nothing but this sheath of pallid air.
Be compassionate and drop a tear for this orphan unhoused in Abraham’s bosom, with no place to lay his head save on “the pillowed bay.” And though the poet of these states, he was landless: “And fold your exile on your back again…”
Those who spat upon his identity were not even “dull lips commemorating spiritual gates.” How many who knew him had that honeycombed wisdom, his self-knowledge: “Thou sowest doom thou hast nor time nor chance to reckon…” An acolyte of Keats he wrote, “I think the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered.” In “At Melville’s Tomb”:
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hiero- glyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
I once saw the portrait of Melville in the house of his granddaughter, and I wondered how Hart Crane could have known this: “Frosted eyes there were that lifted, altars…”
A poet is a prisoner of his wounds. One could also attribute some of his cranial belchings to alcohol, but he wrote to Waldo Frank: “Lately my continence has brought me nothing in the creative way.” Doubtless the long bouts of penury maimed him. In one of his novels, Quevedo says the Spanish sharper sprinkled crumbs on his beard so that it would look as though he has just had a splendid dinner.
His lodgings in New York or Brooklyn Heights was a scabrous room, which, if one can think of a fugue as a color, was lit by a beige abscessed electric bulb, the rent for which he often had to borrow from one of his friends. “I have helped to empty several other pockets also,” said Crane.
Crane had received a hundred dollars as an advance for White Buildings, and Allen Tate, who wrote the Introduction, doubtless only got desert manna for his work. When a writer can count on as much for his labors as a charwoman we will have an American El Dorado. Let anyone tell you that the situation is better now than it was is babbling; there is a great deal of humbug about the Twenties, the Thirties, and the Forties; what difference can one or three decades make? Does anybody really believe that the poet in other centuries was not less hindered than now or forty years ago? Imagine the plight of the poet at the time of the Caesars when Domitian relieved the Roman economy by abating the price of a eunuch. If this sounds bizarre to the doubting Thomases of Philistia, let them ponder the days of hunger of Baudelaire.
Though the writer is reckoned some kind of parasitic Ariel, nothing will prevent him from producing what is absolutely essential to a commonwealth which otherwise exists for millionaires, wastrels, and stupid and immoral articles which nobody needs.
Hart Crane never finished high school, and this seems to trouble his biographer, Philip Horton, who imagines that had he gone to the university he would have been a more cultured poet. A biographer generally is the epicure of a poet’s faults. It would be more accurate to describe Crane’s lack of formal education as a “blessed dearth,” to quote Christian Rossetti. By the time a student can be called a doctor of philosophy, he has very likely never heard of Porphyry, Philostratus, Antisthenes, or the Rig-Veda. Crane wrote: “I have been reading the philosophies of the East until I actually dream in terms of the Vedanta scriptures.” And “The people I am closest to in English are Keats…and the dear great Elizabethans like Marlowe, Webster, Donne and Drayton.”
Nearly all of his canicular days he belonged to the brotherhood of beggars. Both Harriet Monroe and Marianne Moore mangled his verse, and he asked “how much longer will our markets be in the grips of two such hysterical virgins”; the former was the editor of Poetry magazine and the latter the arbiter at the Dial. He was also assailed because he was not a whole man, which, like the Absolute, according to Duns Scotus is nihil. Crane was everyman’s cully; Waldo Frank, his steadfast friend, was hemlock to his work. The Complete Poems appeared posthumously, and the Introduction by Frank is a masterpiece in astral platitudes. Says Frank in his opening line: “Agrarian America had a common culture, which was both the fruit and the carrier of what I have called ‘the great tradition.’ ”
He had published poems in the Little Review, Joseph Kling’s The Pagan, The Fugitive, Broom, and had gotten nothing for his jubilant pains. He hoped to buy a pair of shoes for the money he would receive from an article on Sherwood Anderson that had appeared in The Double Dealer, a New Orleans literary paper. He had beseeched Thomas Seltzer to publish White Buildings, assuring him he had a grandiose audience of five hundred readers, but Seltzer declined to do it. After much pressure from Eugene O’Neill and Waldo Frank, Boni and Liveright brought out the small volume for which he was given one hundred dollars.
Meantime, he was generally looking for “jobs in limbo,” his purgatories were the office in which he wrote advertising copy for hot water heaters or in the “bellies and estuaries of warehouses” of his father’s candy factories.
Hart Crane had no social creeds, and to Allen Tate he wrote: “Poetry as poetry…isn’t worth a second reading any more. Therefore away with Kubla Khan, out with Marlowe, and to hell with Keats.” Crane was never baited by the social paroxysms that are the Cain’s curse of each generation, be it feminism or Marxist dialectics. Covering a strike in the cotton mills, when I was an extreme advocate for the working class, I slept in the house of a Portuguese laborer; above his bed was a tryptich, on one panel was the Virgin Mary, on the other Shirley Temple, and in the middle Karl Marx. Crane had no inclination, as he averred, to “sum up the universe in one impressive pellet.”
Again the letters reveal a comprehension of the perplexities of the American visionary, and despite the influence of the good, gray poet, he says to Tate: “It’s true that my rhapsodic address to [Whitman] in The Bridge exceeds any exact evaluation of the man.” Then, scolding his friend, Crane adds: “…you like so many others, never seem to have read his Democratic Vistas…decrying materialism, industrialism.” Few poets have perused Whitman’s Specimen Days, but neither of these books will be yeasty pabulum for a good maker of verses. He was far closer to what he hoped to do in expressing his admiration for MacLeish’s Conquistador, once a renowned poem, as finely wrought as an Aztec lapidary’s work on turquoise but now skulled in anthologies.
In Mexico, as a Guggenheim Fellow, he discovered that he could fall into as much of a passion for Venus as he did for “calls lilies, freesia, roses, calendulas, white iris, violets, cannas…geraniums…feverfew, candy tuft.” He wrote: “I must admit that I find conjugal life, however unofficial, a great consolation to a loneliness that had about eaten me up.”
But the alcoholic frenzies continued, and his flesh ached for Gehenna and the Gates of Jerusalem. “Suffering is a real purification,” Crane said. “What is beauty, saith my suffering?” wrote Marlowe, his savant and master. His demise was deliriously close; unable to abide the ignominy of level, average days, he either was ecstatic about the fiesta of Tepozteco, the ancient god of pulque, or shuddered with fright as he envisaged himself once more as a penniless urchin in New York. Violence sharpened his intellect; as Plotinus has said: “the…corybantes continue their raptures until they see what they desire.” But Crane craved infinite bacchanalian seizures, or the bliss of the shroud and the tomb, and so aboard the Orizaba, on his way back to New York, he leaped from the rail of the deck into the sharkish Carib sea.
Exile, wanderer, homeless in all latitudes, strife was his god, and his oracle the sea.
Is the agony or the fury of nonsense any different today? Three decades ago or so, the customs officials insisted that D. H. Lawrence’s urned ashes were a work of art and should be taxed; Waldo Frank had to call upon a clergyman to prove to our warders of sexual hygiene that the title of his novel, The Bridegroom Cometh, taken from the New Testament, was not obscene.
So we, who cannot conceive the books without sinning, are outcasts and pornographers, our brains void of cassia, ambergris, and camphor until they are dead, and then deemed priceless in the venal agora, a bookstore, a university, ay, a textbook!
Leopardi “saw the world as a vast league of criminals ruthlessly warring against a few virtuous madmen.”
Hart Crane March 31, 1966