The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932
The life of Hart Crane was a bacchic orgy; he knew no other way to live or compose his poems. As Quevedo wrote: “He rode post to perdition.” Though I realize that humdrum everyday existence cannot be a gloss upon the poem, it might be of niggish interest to the reader to have some intelligence of Crane as a person. I knew him, and there were some similarities in our lives which, though no more than gossip, tease the blood and the veins.
Hart Crane was born July 21, 1899, and I on July 22, 1900. When he was a soda fountain clerk in his father’s fancy ice cream parlor and tea room in Cleveland, Ohio, I was then an inmate of an orphanage in the same city. For a short space of time Hart Crane was a navvy in a munitions plant in Cleveland, and so was I. In 1928 he went to Paris where we met. Crane had already published White Buildings, of which I had never heard, and he asked me, though God knows why, to read the ms. of The Bridge. Though I had studied pre-Socratic philosophy and middle English in the graduate school at Columbia, I knew little about the Boulevard Montparnasse seers of the USA vulgate. I was exceedingly anxious to be a part of the covey of roaring, spastic exiles who contributed to Transition and This Quarter, little expatriate magazines. Hart Crane and I already had encountered Robert McAlmon, Kay Boyle, Eugene Jolas, one of the editors of Transition, and Harry Crosby, a disciple of Lautréamont, author of Maldoror, and the high priest of surrealist satanism.
I was prepared to offer Crane all the genuflections necessary to quell his doubts. We became friendly and he introduced me to McCown, the artist, with whom he lived in a left bank atelier. Both had read my first novel, Bottom Dogs (for which D. H. Lawrence, one of Crane’s deities, had written the Introduction), and Constant Huntington, director of G. P. Putnam’s in London, had given me a contract for the book. Huntington asked me to look up somebody in Paris who would design the wrapper for the volume and Hart Crane had suggested that McCown should do it.
When McCown gave me the drawing for the dust-jacket, I conveyed it to Mr. Huntington who, after receiving it, sent me an acerb reply, saying that he knew that I had written a dirty, picaresque Americanese, but he had never imagined I had believed it was lewd. Eugene MacCown had drawn a map of the United States emphasizing a phallical Florida which I had noticed with a nebulous and naive uneasiness. Of course, I had heard about pathics, but had not the scantiest suspicion that Hart Crane was homosexual. Crane was a stocky, virile male with a jovean square face, mizzling, foggy eyes, gun-metal, gray hair, and a smouldering, amorous mouth.
Though Crane and I knew many Americans in Paris both of us were overwhelmingly alone, castaways of American letters. On the outside of this riotous, visionary coterie, we were solitary mendicants looking for the rotten grapes of Pisgah, and living like cut-rate Montezumas in some dump near the Select or Coupole, parnassian meeting-places for deracinated chatterboxes of literature and gamy, venereal whores.
Crane and I were part of a senseless babel of economics. Impecunious most of his life, he was then receiving a handsome subsidy from the banker and patron of the arts, Otto H. Kahn. The Bridge was to be published by the millionaire sybarite of letters, Harry Crosby. No less poor than Crane, I was then involved with the niece of a very puissant industrialist who later became the fervid crony of Khrushchev. I mention these pocketbook ironies as an aside.
Harry Crosby also invited Crane to write in a castle whose eighteenth-century proprietor had been the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, hoping he would finish The Bridge there. Meanwhile, Crosby, a tenderhearted sufferer who also longed for dionysiac trances, and detesting a world suitable for pithless salesmen and fusty, monied dowds, committed suicide. It was Crosby’s widow, Caresse, who published The Bridge in a beautiful, recherché edition of the Black Sun press in Paris.
Although Crane had fallen into adust ecstasies over Paris, absinthe, Gertrude Stein, and the French language, he went back to America. Penniless by then myself, Hart Crane suggested that I go to Otto H. Kahn and say I was his friend, which I did, and with felicitous results. In New York I saw Hart Crane just when Boni and Liveright had brought out the American edition of The Bridge. He lived in a one-room apartment, somewhat beneath the sidewalk, with a gallon of whiskey on the floor next to his cot, and a pile of Sophie Tucker records for his Victrola. Though not thirty years old, his hair was the color of a seagull. In the daytime he was deeply pooled in mouldy sleep, and at night he ran about Red Hook, the libidinous docks of Tarshish in Brooklyn, soliciting the favors of sailors.
Many times Crane had been beaten by seamen; on one occasion, living on Columbia Heights hard by his iron seraph, the Brooklyn Bridge, he complained to me that a young man whom he thought had the milk-white shoulders of Pelops (I am paraphrasing Christopher Marlowe, Hart Crane’s demigod) had stolen his clothes and forsaken him. He was sorely wounded by this ill hap, but, as I have said, when he was not humiliated, or had not drunk hyssop in some waterfront pot-house, he was unable to achieve that Apollonian composure which he needed to enable him to sit at a table—a poet’s guillotine—and write. “Unless you are broken up, you are not alive,” said Wyndham Lewis in one of his remarkable letters, but as Hart Crane has worded it, he wrote verses, roared, and quarreled with all “the zest for doom.”
What drove Crane crazy was the humid torpor between poems. An odalisque can be idle and recumbent, and her languor is the joy of Eve and the serpent in Eden, but when a poet is supine, just a rotting unthinking corpse, he is beside himself.
Still, he was glutted with remorse and shame; he wrote: “Our tongues recant like beaten weather vanes.” Later I saw him at a party given in honor of Mae West, who had completed her autobiography, the usual elite merde of the cinema star. Crane arrived late; though extremely drunk his clothes were seemly and his manner cavalier. In one of his missives he said: “I’ve been cooking my own meals, and doing my best without the help of a flatiron to keep myself looking spruce.” Crane, copying the dandyism of Heine, explains elsewhere: “Despite my objections to cane-carrying, I find it very pleasant. Puce-colored gloves complete the proper touch.”
He doted on a soirée, and on this occasion he had found the side of a carton which he was offering to authors upon which to sign their names to petition Mae West to sing Frankie and Johnnie. Why Mae West, a mildewed and synthetic dame of the theater, was considered such an aphrodisiacal morsel I will never know. Edmund Wilson, who was there, thought she was as desirable as a Sabine virgin. I don’t think any poet has ever had luck with these dumpy Hollywood dolls whose agents inform us they adore Proust and Dostoevsky. He had sent White Buildings to Chaplin, supposed to be the sorrowful and educated Quixote clown, Chaplin’s secretary sent him a sere, laconic note acknowledging that the book had been received. I believe Hart Crane’s idolatry of jazz, Charles Chaplin, and his mechanolatry, was, in part, the slag of Acheron in his poetry.
There is a doleful chasm between Crane’s epistolary comprehension of a mechanized commonwealth and the veneration of brand new gew gaws which are so apparent in Crane’s poems. In one of his letters Crane asserts: “All this talk about being gay…and painfully delighted” with “the telegraph, the wireless, the street-cars and electric lamp posts annoys me.” A model T. Ford is more precious to the unshriven up-to-date mind than St. Paul’s occiput which was said to have been found in a sheep-cote. We are now near the Last Judgment, making ready for the gaseous declamations of a celestial missile.
The Letters have been marvelously arranged by Brom Weber; and though Crane shows lucid knowledge of a society grounded upon money, an opiate phantasy that has no relation to work or the moral values of products, it is necessary to take a fugitive glance at the poetry. Hart Crane desired above all to make an American myth, and notwithstanding his contempt for pessimism, he was a “revolutionary” in the sense that Wyndham Lewis defines it, “a man of the tabula rasa.”
The American poet is a nihilist, and because he has no past or any sure, graspable tradition, he starts with nothing and then imagines that is his godhead. Crane’s principal faults come from his misuse of language; English is our step-mother language, and we speak, giving the scantiest thought to the reasonable order of words. The music of logic in literature is the sublime use of the metaphor. Crane took swollen and almost deranged risks to make a startling phrase. Crane says: “I now find myself baulked by doubt at the validity of practically every metaphor I coin.”
There is no science of literary criticism, and whatever remarks are offered come from countless errors. A man can misread a poem at twenty, fifty or at my age. The critical faculty is no less splayed than Vulcan’s foot. May each one accept as much of this as suits his purpose, and if the reader mislikes what I say let him throw it out of his mind, and stuff himself with lentils, cabbage and a tithe of Aristotle.
At his best Hart Crane was a Magian of the Logos, but when he felt down he wrote turbid, amorphous doggerel. His work is glutted with neologies, solecisms, and jazz dada locutions which have nothing to do with the sexual feud between his father, a Cleveland candy manufacturer, and his mother, a Christian Scientist. There is no doubt that he was the brunt of bestial, Faustian altercations between his parents. Hart Crane tells his mother: “…my youth has been the rather bloody battleground for yours and father’s sex life.” “Must every man entomb a withered child?” asks the poet Stanley Burnshaw.
No matter what one’s childhood is, a seeming Elysian remembrance or a parental vendetta, the understanding of the afflatus of a poet lies elsewhere. Crane was a neo-American Elizabethan who ran mad for new words. Nor can one assert that his electric shock tropes were the result of a sundered, homosexual nature, for this makes no sense. He could have been drawn to Aphrodite, inflamed by her peplum, and have had no sensibility.
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