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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.

Among poets and readers of poetry Crane established a reputation as the most promising poet of his generation. In 1925, after his father refused to give him an allowance, the millionaire Otto Kahn gave him $2,000 to work on his long, ambitious poem The Bridge. In December 1926 his first book of poems, White Buildings, was published. His drinking increased, as did his erratic wandering and his constant difficulties with his parents. Like most young men of his age he wanted love from his mother and money from his father. Neither parent felt fully able to satisfy his needs, but by doing so sporadically, they seemed instead to magnify certain vulnerabilities in him.

In December 1928 Crane traveled to Europe, seeing Robert Graves and Laura Riding in London and André Gide and Gertrude Stein in Paris. He continued working on The Bridge, which was published in a limited edition in Paris in 1930 and subsequently in a trade edition in New York. He moved to New York, where he wore out his welcome in a number of friends’ houses, then back to Cleveland, and then traveled to Mexico in 1931. He was still drinking a great deal. On April 27, 1932, while returning to the United States from Mexico aboard the Orizaba, he jumped from the deck and drowned. His myth as the poète maudit, the doomed, wild, homosexual genius, America’s Rimbaud, had begun; his very name was a warning to the young about the dangers and the delights of poetry. It was a myth that even the seriousness and the immense slow force of his poems and the studious tone of many of his letters would do little to dispel.

In April 1917 Crane wrote to his father of his great ambition:

I shall really without doubt be one of the foremost poets in America if I am enabled to devote enough time to my art.

The poetry he intended to write was to be highly wrought and full of self-conscious and hard-won artistry. Although there are times in his work when a word or a phrase seems chosen at random, selected for its sound as much as it sense, his letters emphasize that he was not interested in a dream language or summoning his phrases at random from the well of the unconscious. In January 1921 he wrote to a friend about the Dadaist movement: “I cannot figure out just what Dadaism is beyond an insane jumble of the four winds, the six senses, and plum pudding.” And two weeks later he wrote to another friend: “There is little to be gained in any art, so far as I can see, except with much conscious effort.” Later that year, he wrote again:

I admit to a slight leaning toward the esoteric, and am perhaps not to be taken seriously. I am fond of things of great fragility, and also and especially of the kind of poetry John Donne represents, a dark musky, brooding, speculative vintage, at once sensual and spiritual, and singing rather the beauty of experience rather than innocence.

The following year he wrote to Allen Tate: “Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!”

In these letters from 1922, as he worked on his poem “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” he wrote to friends of the sheer effort each line took and the burden of symbolic meaning he was asking the words to carry. “What made the first part of my poem so good,” he wrote, “was the extreme amount of time, work and thought put on it.” In a letter to Waldo Frank in February 1923, he tried to indicate his intentions:

Part I starts out from the quotidian, rises to evocation, ecstasy and statement. The whole poem is a kind of fusion of our own time with the past. Almost every symbol of current significance is matched by a correlative, suggested or actually stated, “of ancient days.”

In an earlier letter, he made clear also that the second part of the poem was “a jazz roof garden description in amazing language”:

A thousand light shrugs balance us

Through snarling hails of melody.

White shadows slip across the floor

Splayed like cards from a loose hand;

Rhythmic ellipses lead into canters

Until somewhere a rooster banters.

For anyone in those years writing poems that attempted to fuse deliberate and difficult structure with phrases filled with allusion and symbolic meaning, using rhythms which sought to seduce the reader with a mixture of the subtle and the strident, it was obvious that T.S. Eliot was an example to be welcomed and watched. Crane read The Waste Land as soon as it appeared. He was deeply alert to the power of Eliot’s influence and of his own need both to absorb and evade it. “There is no one writing in English who can command so much respect, to my mind, as Eliot,” he wrote.

However, I take Eliot as a point of departure toward an almost complete reverse of direction…. I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities as real and powerful now as, say in the time of Blake.

The letters suggest that the poems Crane wrote came only with enormous concentration at times when he managed to make a densely packed music in his poetry which matched or impelled his complex aims in meaning and structure. His work did not come with the same effortless grace which the poems of William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens, two poets whom he admired, seemed to come, and which allowed them to hold down jobs with ease and have what appeared, on the surface at least, a calm domestic life. The life Crane lived when was he was not writing was troubled and messy, as his biographers have described.3

For this reason, it is useful to have more than five hundred pages of Crane’s selected letters in the same volume as the poems that were published in his lifetime and the unpublished poems. The picture of the poet here is rather less alarming than the one that appears in the biographies. He seems at times almost dull, often thoughtful and responsible, and quite bookish. If his life in the letters is colorful, then the color comes from the naked quality of Crane’s ambition and the complex sensibility he exposed to his correspondents. His letters also throw real and sensuous light on the actual poems themselves as they were being written. Indeed, when he was not writing to his immediate family, Crane was writing almost exclusively to friends who were poets or who cared deeply about poetry.

Early in 1923 he wrote to a friend about his plans for a long poem, The Bridge:

I am too much interested in this Bridge thing lately to write letters, ads, or anything. It is just beginning to take the least outline,—and the more outline the conception of the things takes,—the more its final difficulties appall me…. Very roughly, it concerns a mystical synthesis of “America.” History and fact, location, etc. all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter…. The marshalling of the forces…will take me months, at best; and I may have to give it up entirely before that; it may be too impossible an ambition. But if I do succeed, such a waving of banners, such ascent of towers, such dancing etc, will never before have been put down on paper!

Early the following year in New York, Crane met and fell in love with Emil Opffer, three years his senior, who worked in the merchant marine. Opffer found him lodgings at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn in a house inhabited by Opffer’s father, who was a newspaper editor, and other bohemians and artists. (John Dos Passos lived in the building for a while.) Crane wrote to his mother and grandmother about his new quarters:

Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the statue of Liberty, way down the harbour, and the marvelous beauty of Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right!

It was as though he had walked into his own poem. “I think,” he wrote to Waldo Frank,

the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered, at least in part, and I believe I am a little changed—not essentially, but changed and transubstantiated as anyone is who has asked a question and been answered.

Again he wrote to his mother and grandmother about the view:

Look far to your left toward Staten Island and there is the statue of Liberty, with that remarkable lamp of hers that makes her seen for miles. And up to the right Brooklyn Bridge, the most superb piece of construction in the modern world, I’m sure, with strings of lights crossing it like glowing worms as the Ls and surface cars pass each other going and coming.

He confided to his mother about the poems he was writing:

There’s no stopping for rest, however, when one is in the “current” of creation, so to speak, and so I’ve spent all of today at one or two stubborn lines. My work is becoming known for its formal perfection and hard glowing polish, but most of those qualities, I’m afraid, are due to a great deal of labor and patience on my part…. Besides working on parts of my Bridge I’m engaged in writing a series of six sea poems called “Voyages” (they are also love poems)…. I feel as though I were well arranged for a winter of rich work, reading and excitement—there simply isn’t half time enough (that’s my main complaint) for all that is offered.

In 1925 Crane moved home to Cleveland for a time and then to Patterson in upstate New York, where he shared a farmhouse with Allen Tate and Tate’s wife Caroline Gordon before he fell out with them with much bitter correspondence and recrimination, some of which reads like high comedy. He desperately needed somewhere to work on his long poem before the money Otto Kahn had given him ran out. And just as his move to Brooklyn seemed to come as a piece of almost uncanny good fortune, allowing him to inhabit parts of his long poem as he conceived of them, now he made another move which was to provide him with images, metaphors, and suggestions fully matching the grandeur of his design. He had appealed to his mother to allow him to go to her property on the Isle of Pines, close to Cuba in the West Indies, where he had not been since he was sixteen. She was at first uneasy about the idea, feeling, among other things, that he would disturb the housekeeper, but soon she relented. In early May 1926 Crane voyaged toward the scenes of some of the later sections of The Bridge.

Slowly, in what seemed like an undiscovered country waiting for its Columbus, he began to work, reading, planning his poem further, and then writing:

Here waves climb into dusk on gleaming mail;

Invisible valves of the sea,—locks, tendons

Crested and creeping, troughing corridors

That fall back yawning to another plunge.

Slowly the sun’s red caravel drops light

Once more behind us…. It is morning there—

O where our Indian emperies lie revealed,

Yet lost, all, let this keel one instant yield!

He worked on some of the earlier as well as the later sections, including “Atlantis.” He wrote to a friend in New York:

I’ve been having a great time reading Atlantis in America, the last book out on the subject, and full of exciting suggestions. Putting it back for 40 or 50 thousand years, it’s easy to believe that a continent existed in mid-Atlantic waters and that the Antilles and West Indies are but salient peaks of its surface.

In August 1926 he wrote to Waldo Frank:

I have never been able to live completely in my work before. Now it is to learn a great deal. To handle the beautiful skeins of this myth of America—to realize suddenly, as I seem to, how much of the past is living under only slightly altered forms, even in machinery and such-like, is extremely exciting.

He sent the sections of The Bridge as he finished them to editors and friends. On July 22 he sent Marianne Moore his poem “To Brooklyn Bridge” for The Dial (which she accepted); it would be the prologue for his long poem. Two days later he wrote to Waldo Frank: “That little prelude, by the way, I think to be almost the best thing I’ve ever written, something steady and uncompromising about it.” Its last two stanzas read:

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;

Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

The City’s fiery parcels all undone,

Already snow submerges an iron year…

O Sleepless as the river under thee,

Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,

Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend

And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Crane was well aware that an epic poem could not be written in America in the 1920s. Such a poem would, he knew, because of its very ambition, be doomed to failure or something close to failure. This idea seemed, most of the time, to excite him. He was, it is important to remember, a poet in his twenties. At times he saw that the symbols would not carry the weight he gave them. “The bridge,” he wrote to Waldo Frank in June 1926, “as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks.”

But in other letters, including ones to Frank, and especially one written fifteen months later to his patron Otto Kahn that set out the grand design of the poem, he seemed to feel no doubt about the importance of his project. “The Aeneid was not written in two years,” he wrote to Kahn,

nor in four, and in more than one sense I feel justified in comparing the historic and cultural scope of The Bridge to that great work. It is at least a symphony with an epic theme, and a workof considerable profundity and inspiration.

Like many young poets, he wrote home once his first book had appeared wondering what they would make of it. He wrote to his mother:

I’m very much amused at what you say about the interest in my book out there in Cleveland. Wait until they see it, and try to read it! I may be wrong, but I think they will eventually express considerable consternation.

His father was not impressed. As late as 1928, when The Bridge was almost finished, he suggested that his son learn a trade. But Crane was still adding to his store, discovering, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins early in 1928. “It is a revelation to me—of unrealized possibilities,” he wrote to Yvor Winters, who seemed to admire his work, and with whom he had a fascinating correspondence until Winters reviewed The Bridge harshly, thus ending what had been a close literary friendship.

Crane seemed to derive energy and immense pleasure from travel. His letters from France and Mexico are filled with delight, even though it is clear that he was drinking a great deal in Mexico. It was there in 1932 that he broke rank, as he put it, with the “brotherhood,” and began an affair with Peggy Cowley, who was in the midst of a divorce from Malcolm Cowley. “I think it has done me considerable good,” he wrote. “The old beauty still claims me, however, and my eyes roam as much as ever. I doubt if I’ll ever change very fundamentally.”

Once The Bridge was finished and published, Crane continued working on a number of shorter poems, including “The Broken Tower”:

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn

Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell

Of a spent day—to wander the cathedral lawn

From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

In Mexico, he had been on a Guggenheim fellowship which ended on March 31, 1932, when he said to a friend, “I’m just plain Hart Crane again.” He was unsure whether he wanted to remain in Mexico or return to the United States. The problem, as before, was money, and this problem now became more severe when he learned that his inheritance from his father’s estate would be much less than he had expected, not enough to live on. His stepmother wrote to him on April 12:

Nothing can be paid from the estate account to you in the way of your bequest…and there isn’t any income from stocks to speak of. We are not making any money from our different businesses. The only thing we can do is to give you an allowance from my salary each month, and that I have made arrangements to do.

Crane was drinking wildly and behaving erratically but still spoke of plans for future work. It was clear because of the freedom he had won during his travels and his high ambition as a poet and also because of his constant drinking that he was in no state to go back to New York and work again in advertising, or make his living in any way. He spoke of suicide and, it was reported, made a number of wills. Eventually, it was decided that he and Peggy Cowley would sail back to the United States on the Orizaba from Veracruz. After a stop in Havana, it seems that Crane was badly beaten on the ship in the early hours of April 27. One of his fellow passengers, Gertrude Berg, saw that “he had a black eye and looked generally battered.”

Close to noon that day he appeared on deck. “He walked to the railing,” Berg remembered,

took off his coat, folded it neatly over the railing (not dropping it on deck), placed both hands on the railing, raised himself on his toes, and then dropped back again. We all fell silent and watched him, wondering what in the world he was up to. Then, suddenly, he vaulted over the railing and jumped into the sea…. Just once I saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.

Although lifeboats were lowered, there were no further sightings of the poet. One of the most brilliant first acts in American literature had come to an end.

  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.

  3. 3

    See John Unterecker, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969); Paul L. Mariani, The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane (Norton, 1999); and Clive Fisher, Hart Crane: A Life (Yale University Press, 2002).

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