On December 20, 1923, Hart Crane, recovering in Woodstock after several months in the “insidious impurity” of New York City and flushed with the effects of his latest poetic stimulant, wrote to the literary critic Gorham Munson:
This poet…was a Rimbaud in embryo. Did you ever see some of the hobbling yet really gorgeous attempts that boy made without any education or time except when he became confined to a cot? [William Murrell] Fisher has shown me an amazing amount of material, some of which I am copying and will show you when I get back. No grammar, nor spelling, and scarcely any form, but a quality that is unspeakably eerie and the most convincing gusto. One little poem is as good as any of the consciously conceived “Pierrots” of Laforgue.
Samuel Greenberg, the doomed, gnomic poet-naif Crane describes, was already six years dead at the time of the letter’s writing, having succumbed to tuberculosis in 1917, at the age of twenty-three, in the Manhattan State Hospital on Wards Island. He was unpublished in his lifetime and died in anonymity. Fisher, a friend and art critic, had been given Greenberg’s notebooks by two of the late poet’s surviving brothers, with a view toward posthumous publication. He became friendly with Crane during his stay in Woodstock and showed him the notebooks during one of their literary evenings together. “As the two men read over the difficult penciled script…Crane became more and more excited,” Philip Horton, Crane’s first biographer, wrote of the encounter. “He seized upon certain lines and phrases, and striding up and down the room, repeated them over and over, calling his companion to witness their power and originality and beauty.”
Crane borrowed the notebooks from Fisher and brought transcribed copies back to New York City a few weeks later. These he read and annotated with notes and appendices, little accretions of solace and wonder and palpable longing. Beneath “The ‘East River’s’ Charm,” for instance, Crane wrote, “And will I know if you are dead?/The river leads on and on instead/Of certainty…” The question here seems at least partly posed at the dead youth. This enthusiasm signaled the kind of lasting, vexed infatuation Malcolm Lowry—describing his own obsession with Herman Melville and Conrad Aiken—called a “hysterical identification.” Greenberg’s words and motifs are detectable in many of the poems Crane wrote between 1924 and 1929, in both preliminary drafts and final versions, from the outright thievery in “Emblems of Conduct” to the lifted phrases of “Voyages II” and “Atlantis” to images in “Lachrymae Christi,” “Cape Hatteras,” and “The Dance.”
Greenberg was an opportune discovery for Crane, who, in 1923, was still finding his way. Three years before the mesmeric obfuscations of his debut, White Buildings, the poet found himself adrift in a kind of dismal freedom, seeking a language capable of surmounting what he saw as the enervated, enervating poetics of modernity. “The fact is,” he had written to Munson in an earlier letter,
I can find nothing in modern work to come up to the verbal richness, irony and emotion of these [Elizabethans]…I have come to the stage now where I want to carefully choose my most congenial influences…. One must be drenched in words, literally soaked with them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.
(Wonderful Cranian imagery here: the slake of inspiration is a deluge, appropriately nautical.)
He had taken Eliot, the gravity-bending star of his generation, as far as he could, or as far as he wanted to: “I, for instance, would like to leave a few of his ‘negations’ behind me,” he wrote to Allen Tate in 1922, “risk the realm of the obvious more, in quest of new sensations.” The seductive pessimisms of the moment were the “the dying agonies of…maladie modern,” a capitulation to detachment that Crane was determined to surmount. After The Waste Land’s “perfection of death,” he sought a means of ecstatic, even chaotic, resurrection.
Greenberg’s poetry, by contrast, bristled with uncommon formal features: elliptical prosody, difficult syntax, esoteric references, misspellings, and bizarre contractions. Here are a few lines from one of his almost-sonnets, called “Essence”:
The opera singer softly sang
Like the pellucid birds of Australian
Thicket. Anatomy’s lace wrung
The cells of thousand feelings
Though the poems were amateurish and roughly hewn, their astonishing imagery suggested a Blakean revelation. The work’s alluring effects would propel the wayward Crane well beyond gentle mimicry or homage. His debt to Greenberg was unknown until the mid-1930s, when Horton was preparing his biography. An old woman who had been Crane’s maid in 1926, during his six-month stay on the Isle of Pines, off the coast of Cuba, sent Horton a sheaf of typed poems that bore a plain paper cover with the mysterious title “Greenberg Mss.” Horton’s inspection of its contents would eventually prove that Crane had plagiarized Greenberg, not only in the form of individual words, images, and phrases, but also in several recognizably patterned effects.
Two years after Horton’s biography appeared, James Laughlin published “The Greenberg Manuscripts” in his New Directions in Prose and Poetry 1939, including a selection of Greenberg’s work and an essay by Laughlin on the poet and Crane’s debt to him. This has now been reissued, with a few additional Greenberg poems edited by Garrett Caples. As Caples notes in his preface, “only through the persistence of various Hart Crane scholars did the whereabouts of this body of work remain publicly known, before its final disposition in the Fales Manuscript Collection at New York University in 1964.”
Samuel Bernard Greenberg was born in 1893, in the Jewish ghetto in Vienna—“a dim symphony,” he later called the city—the sixth of eight children in a “holy family of embroiderers.” Little is known of his early life, but a few evocative fragments emerge.* “I can yet feel the clean streets,” he wrote of his early childhood in “Between Historical Life,” one of his few surviving prose works, “the finest ways of the languid German accent of politeness, the post where the historical memories loom—oh yes—bicycle-riding boulevards and the long way to the school gate.” Elsewhere in the same piece he describes an unsettling afternoon when he was four or five years old, and one of his brothers “took me to the forest: the fantasy of ghost stories overwhelmed my conscience. They left me in the woods but returned to find me crying in utter despair of fear.” Early intimations of abandonment, then, and golden embroideries, and stories, and forests, and “rare movements about the Austrian capital”—a certain uncanniness to the historical place, as in fairy tales or improbable dreams.
The Greenbergs departed for America—the father first, the others shortly after—in 1900, eventually settling in a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side. “The poverty and insult of life cannot find sufficient words on paper,” Greenberg later wrote of the following decade. “It was a struggle for decency.” He spoke nothing but Yiddish or German until he was six years old, and was educated, briefly, at Public School 160: “In the handsome path of 1901 and 1907 I was a reaper of hard fact and geographical bliss; a whole world of purity and history was given to me to take home and examine at my interest.” (There is always this slanted music to Greenberg’s sentences, hoary diction giving way to novelty and the oddly impetuous phrase.)
His formal education ceased in 1908, at the age of fourteen, when his mother grew ill—“ear trouble, germ trouble, nose trouble, skull trouble”—and died soon after. He went to work in his brother Adolf’s leather-bag shop, where he likely contracted the tuberculosis that would later kill him. His father’s death in 1913 left him parentless at the age of nineteen. When not living with one or another of his elder brothers, he spent his final four years in charity hospitals. He described his illness, like so much else, with unsettling obliqueness: “They russle around my bed like swarming locusts.”
It was during these lean, ragged years that Greenberg began to grope beyond what he called “the dime novel nobility” toward his poetic vocation. His brother Morris, in an interview with Marc Simon, said that the boy read obsessively from dictionaries and thesauruses, and spent hours in the Fifth Avenue Library, devouring books, following his intuition: “A feeling for poetic insight began to accumulate,” Greenberg wrote in “Between Historical Life.” “I wrote anywhere, read merely to gain letters for the sake of rhyme, rewrote books, recited in a furnished room all alone.” William Murrell Fisher, who worked at the Metropolitan Museum and befriended Greenberg after meeting him there, introduced him to Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. On his own, he discovered Edgar Allan Poe, Lafcadio Hearn, Walter Pater, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Robert Browning, and William Blake, each of whose styles he tried on—we find in his work the Keatsian “fettered chill,” the Emersonian “over-souled hush,” the Shelleyan “starry splendor dome”—before assimilating their tones into his own roughened exaltations.
And the work is indisputably rough. A typical Greenberg poem is haphazard, uneven, abrupt, feral, bordering on senseless, though often organized in quatrains or other roughly nineteenth-century stanzaic forms. It tends to hitch and spasm, pulling restlessly at the restraints of meter and rhyme. Its greatest moments offer the sudden, reckless freedom of a horse fleeing the carriage it was meant to convey. “The poetry of Greenberg is not great poetry,” Laughlin wrote in his original introduction to the manuscript, “and it is not even important minor poetry…and yet…poetry it is, pure poetry, to an extent equaled by the work of few other writers.” There remains about particular moments an agate brilliance in which great interiors—of what, however, we aren’t certain—are briefly illuminated, as in these stanzas from an early untitled poem:
Ah! there slumbers the ages
Ah! there resteth thy kind
’Tis heavy burden to conceive
That is tinted with a cover
We’ve been resting on thy scented
Were forceing to bind the ties
Ah! Mortals why art ye! Raving
Like the constant vanishing
Discrete meaning is jettisoned here like too-heavy cargo. All is agitation, a gathering intensity set off by death’s inertness, its cosmic inaction. Tumult and contradiction induce in Greenberg the very means of his poetry. Those three exclamations—“Ah!…Ah!…Ah!”—seem possessed of a finely tuned awe, a preponderancy of awareness. The exquisite wonder of the poem—“Mortals why art ye!”—is not naive exactly, but inhuman, almost faunlike. As in so much of Greenberg, there is a sense of impurities burning away, of essence concentrated. The very titles of his poems—“Memory,” “Words,” “Immortality, “Flowers”—are powerful distillates, the particularity of the world dimming before the authority of form.
His tools are varied: curious adjectival compounds (“profound Vital thrift”), exclamatory jolts (“Science! the smithy of the sea!”), appealing nonsense (“unlimbered woob”), mysterious scene-making (“By a peninsula, the painter sat and/Sketched the uneven vally groves”). He is an architect of the astounding image rather than the poem entire. “Crazy about words,” Laughlin called him, “crazy about their sounds and shapes and the magical life of association which they have unto themselves.” The influence of Blake, especially, manifests in moments of ecstatic burning, the high, fine heat of visionary flame: “Through dense lofty heavens borne/In pure unceasing crisp of light/My Holy Ghost” (“Home”); or “In what finite tendon dost thou rise?” (“Spirituality”); or “the sensual net of lecherous/Wounds” (“Lust”); or “O perfect lay of deity’s crested Herb” (“Man”), a line Crane would later steal and reimagine. To read Greenberg is to await these white flashes of clarity, like lightning over dark pasture.
Introducing the world to Greenberg in 1939, Laughlin wisely identified him as a proto-Surrealist. (He knew of what he spoke, having published a fair sampling of the modernist avant-garde across two continents.) Consider poems like “The Street Lamp and the Eyelid” (“Close near my eyelid/The golden threads were damp,/That moved like a fairy cobweb/Beneath the orbly chant”) or the marvelously titled “The Pale Impromptu.” Their febrile, incongruous lines, if squinted at, can read like the imagined juvenilia of Robert Desnos or Paul Éluard. Greenberg’s legacy in some sense depends on his facility with illogic and coincidence. As Caples notes in this new edition, his poetry has “largely been championed by surrealist or surrealist-inflected poets, such as Philip Lamantia, John Ashbery, Jeremy Reed, and the Chicago Surrealist Group.” But in order to exert an influence on this cohort, Greenberg had first to be smuggled into American modernism by way of the vigorous and unscrupulous Hart Crane.
“Sonnets of Apology,” Greenberg’s most accomplished cycle of poems, was written on his deathbed. (A not insignificant percentage of his corpus, more than six hundred poems all told, was composed while he was mortally ill.) Nominally sonnets, the cycle abandons discipline for the exigencies of delirium. A clotted Romantic cosmology—fever, blood, moon, dream—thwarts the clarifying turn of the sonnet form, as in the gorgeously strange “Enigmas”:
I’ve been ill amongst my fellow
And yet have borne with me joys
That few sought its indulgence
As dreams that press meditation’s
Wanton coys, o’er desired
Religion’s chariot halted for my
Art bowed, showed its infinite
Of charm, science hailed its width
Of semetry, doubting conscience
Concentration, and behave, The
Of Fire from the sun cast mine
To slumber in imagination of
Under the heavens of moon-like
Mine eyelids shut, I fell into unfelt
There is something especially Keatsian about Greenberg, beyond their shared sense of living a posthumous existence. It is there in that very Keatsian phrase—“unfelt realms”—the suggestion of a bridge between the Romantics and the modernists, a current of sensuality wending darkly out of the nineteenth century into the concrete heart of the twentieth.
“Conduct,” another poem in the cycle, was of special interest to Crane. It would serve as the basis for his most blatant appropriation, “Emblems of Conduct,” a poem included in White Buildings. Allen Tate judged the poem “among [Crane’s] finest work,” though almost every one of its seventeen lines was stolen from at least five of Greenberg’s “Sonnets of Apology.” Laughlin’s damning appendix to his introduction lays bare the extent of Crane’s thieving: Greenberg’s line “For joy Hides its stupendous coverings” becomes Crane’s “For joy rides in stupendous coverings”; Greenberg’s “the orator follows the universe/And refrains the laws of the people” becomes Crane’s “Orators follow the universe/And radio the complete laws to the people”; Greenberg’s “The wanderer soon chose/His spot of rest” becomes Crane’s “The wanderer later chose this spot of rest.” Little bendings, effacements, spot-cleans—admittedly often improvements over the originals—cannot hide what amounts to looting. Laughlin found that only two of the seventeen lines of Crane’s poem do not rely on Greenberg’s words.
Laughlin was largely forgiving of Crane, his indignation perhaps mitigated by the poet’s suicidal leap from the steamship Orizaba (or the imprimatur of canonization). He compares “Emblems of Conduct,” for instance, to “centones of the Middle Ages, those patch-work poems in which Christian stories were told in lines torn from their contexts in pagan authors.” The specter is briefly summoned before being dismissed: “I do not think we need even mention the word plagiarism,” he concludes. This kind of amnesty has continued to prevail among Crane scholars and biographers. His alcoholism or his depression or his tormented queerness is offered as a plausible excuse.
These reasons are no longer satisfactory. Whatever Crane’s rationalizations were, his plagiarism is compounded by the disparity between the two poets’ lives and backgrounds. “The fact that Crane, a child of wealth and privilege, stole from Greenberg, an impoverished, orphaned immigrant who died of tuberculosis, arouses all of my indignation as a poet,” writes Caples in his preface. The reader is left with the uncomfortable knowledge that Greenberg’s work would have disappeared if not for Crane’s exploitation of it.
While not the definitive edition of Greenberg one hopes will someday be published—this would include the complete poems, the mystical autobiographical prose, the fanciful plays, the accomplished self-portraits, the sketched marginalia of hands and smoking pipes—Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts is, as Caples has it, “a reasonable stopgap.” Included alongside Laughlin’s original essay and selection of poems is a sampling of Greenberg’s prose, “Between Historical Life” being the most gripping as a sort of evasive ars poetica. Two additional prose pieces and three poems that first appeared in the Chicago Surrealist Group’s Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion 4 are included, as are several newly prepared versions of poems not found in the original New Directions pamphlet. (Of particular note is “Railroad Joy!,” which revs with Futurist velocity: “The speeding cars and landscapes/that pass the other way enjoy the eyes and/Rest the wild secondary glance….”)
Editing Samuel Greenberg is an unenviable task. The poet’s eccentricities make the editor uncomfortably visible, a set of smeared fingerprints on the glass of each stanza. Caples has chosen to correct Greenberg’s misspellings and to remove entirely the em dashes that pock and partition his lines. “As an editor,” Caples writes, “I see no reason to retain these dashes, which aren’t even substitutes for correct punctuation but rather confusingly are inserted where no punctuation belongs.” It seems to me that Greenberg’s rhythmic hesitancy is lost here, those Dickinson-like dashes providing something like an indrawn breath or a dammed momentum, the brief iconography of a mind’s ripple and release. (It should be said that Michael Carr, who prepared certain poems for this edition, chose to keep the dashes. The reader can decide which approach she likes best.)
But the poems we have will do very well for now. After all the original work, the plagiarism, the early deaths of Greenberg and Crane, we are left a little seasick, seeing both of them there on the page, now conjoined, now doubled: two exiles in New York (one from Garretsville, the other from Vienna), poètes maudits attuned to the city’s babble, both inclined to nautical imagery, celestial suggestion, chaos, lyric joy. Greenberg may forever be a moon circling a planet, though he has not yet been crushed by those tidal forces. Buried in a fittingly untitled and otherwise unremarkable poem, this line of his provides an apt précis of his circumscribed life and beguiling work: “The poet seeks an earth in himself.”
Like anyone attempting to write on Greenberg, I’m indebted to the only extant biographical resource, Marc Simon’s slim but thorough Samuel Greenberg, Hart Crane and the Lost Manuscripts (Humanities Press, 1978). ↩