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A Great American Visionary

There are certain single volumes of American poetry, some of them first books or early books, which carry with them a special and spiritual power; they seem to arise from a mysterious impulse and to have been written from an enormous private or artistic need. The poems are full of a primal sense of voice, and the aura of the voice in the rhythms of the poem suggests a relentless desire not to make easy peace with the reader. If some of these poems have the tone of prayers, they are not prayers of comfort or of supplication as much as urgent laments or cries from the depths where the language has been held much against its will or has broken free, and now demands to be heard.

Such tones can be found in the very opening lines of the first poem in such recent books as Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song (1995):

Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.

All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it

Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing

The song of a night bird.

Or Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (1992):

At the end of my suffering

there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death

I remember.

Or the first lines of “Epistle,” the first poem of Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose (1986):

Of wisdom, splendid columns of light

waking sweet foreheads,

I know nothing

but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful of daydreams.

Of a world with end,

amen,

I know nothing,

but what I sang of once with others,

all of us standing in the vaulted room.

In “General Aims and Theories,” written in 1925, Hart Crane tried to outline his sense of where this tone, so apparent in his own work, came from: “I am concerned,” he wrote,

with the future of America, but not because I think that America has any so-called par value as a state or as a group of people…. It is only because I feel persuaded that here are destined to be discovered certain as yet undefined spiritual qualities, perhaps a new hierarchy of faith not to be developed so completely elsewhere. And in this process I like to feel myself as a potential factor; certainly I must speak in its terms and what discoveries I may make are situated in its experience.

As is clear from his early letters, Crane as a reader set about preparing himself with enormous zeal and moral seriousness to become that “potential factor.” Despite his provincial background and his problems with his parents, and then partly because of them, he found a tone and a poetic diction that matched a sensibility which was both visionary and deeply rooted in the real. In his poems he worked a gnarled, edgy sound against the singing line; he played a language dense with metaphor and suggestion against images and rhythms of pure soaring beauty. His syntax had something hard and glittering in it, utterly surprising. In his best poems he managed to make the rhythms—the hidden nervous system in the words and between the words—so interesting, intense, and effortless that they command attention and emotional response despite their verbal density, basic difficulty, and what Crane himself called “tangential slants, inter-woven symbolisms.”

Even though most of his poems were written when he was in his twenties—he was born in 1899 and committed suicide in 1932—there is a definite sense from the few essays that Crane wrote and from the selection of his richly interesting correspondence now collected with his poems in a single volume that he had put considerable thought into his literary heritage and viewed his place in it with passionate sophistication. In 1926, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem “At Melville’s Tomb,” Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force. The first stanza reads:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge

The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath

An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,

Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else),” Monroe wrote. Crane in his reply admitted that

as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.

In his next paragraph he emphasized, however, that there was nothing aleatory in his method. “This may sound,” he wrote,

as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.

He then took Monroe through some lines of the poem, including “The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath/An embassy.” “Dice bequeath an embassy,” he wrote,

in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having “numbers” but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seems legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.

Monroe had commented as well on the opening of the last stanza:

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive

No farther tides….

Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant,” she wrote, “contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.”

Hasn’t it often occurred,” Crane replied,

that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured?

In the same letter, he quoted from Blake and T.S. Eliot to show how the language of the poetry he wrote and admired did not simply ignore logic, it sought to find a logic deeply embedded in metaphor and suggestion. This poetry, he made clear, did not follow the lazy path dictated by the unconscious, or allow the outlandish or the merely associative to triumph, but was deliberate and exact, even though it belonged “to another order of experience than science.” He worked toward both “great vividness and accuracy of statement,” even if it might seem to some, including Monroe, that the vivid triumphed over the accurate.1

Harold Hart Crane was born in Ohio, where his father owned a factory that made syrup, and later founded the Crane Chocolate Company, which manufactured candy. (His father invented the type of candy known as Life Savers.) The relationship between Crane’s parents was often difficult with many separations and reconciliations; Crane at the age of nine was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Belden Hart, to whom he became very close. He shared a certain emotional instability with his mother, who became a Christian Scientist. At sixteen he attempted suicide on the Isle of Pines off Cuba, a property owned by his mother’s family.

From an early age Crane expressed his interest in becoming a poet. At seventeen, he published his first poem in a magazine. Entitled “C 33,” it was about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde:

He has woven rose-vines

About the empty heart of night,

And vented his long mellowed wines

Of dreaming on the desert white

With searing sophistry.

And he tented with far truths he would form

The transient bosoms from the thorny tree.

O Materna! to enrich thy gold head

And wavering shoulders with a new light shed

From penitence, must needs bring pain,

And with you its song of minor, broken strain.

But you who hear the lamp whisper through night

Can trace paths tear-wet, and forget all blight.

That same year, when he submitted poems to the magazine Others he was told by William Carlos Williams that they were “damn good stuff.”2

Part of the reason for Crane’s supreme self-confidence and precocious ambition arose from the fact that his enthusiasm for writing was not watered down by much formal education. His reading became a way of escaping from the war between his parents. In his teens and early twenties he found the poets he was looking for in the same way as rushing water will find a steep incline. He read Shakespeare, Drayton, Donne, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Whitman, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Eliot with delight, and also the work of the Jacobean dramatists. And in the same years he could also list the poets whose work he disliked; they included Milton, Byron, Tennyson, and Amy Lowell.

In 1917 his mother suggested that he drop the “Harold” when he published his poems:

In signing your name to your contributions & later to your books do you intend to ignore your mother’s side of the house entirely…. How would “Hart Crane” be.

His father disapproved of his interest in becoming a writer:

Poetry is alright; your chosen vocation is alright, but when you are living in New York and spending $2 a week for tutoring [in French], out of an allowance of $25, it is not alright; it isn’t as things should be.

In his late teens and early twenties Crane moved between New York and Cleveland, getting intermittent support, financial and emotional, from one or the other of his parents, and making literary friends, including Sherwood Anderson, whom he admired, and later Allen Tate, Waldo Frank, and Eugene O’Neill, and meeting editors wherever he could. He had a number of homosexual love affairs. He read Dostoevsky with considerable interest, and “that delightful Moby Dick,” and then a smuggled copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, writing to a friend: “He is the one above all others I should like to talk to.” Eventually in January 1920, having worked at odd jobs and published poems in magazines, he went to work for his father’s company. But relations remained strained and in 1921 Crane severed contact with his father for more than two years. The following year he began working as an advertising copywriter and held jobs in advertising agencies in Cleveland and New York between periods that he devoted to either writing or drinking or both.

  1. 1

    Monroe published “At Melville’s Tomb” along with her own letter to Crane and his reply in the October 1926 issue of Poetry.

  2. 2

    Ezra Pound, on the other hand, disliked his early work and advised the editors of The Little Review not to publish him.

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