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,


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…

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