A Lost Original

Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts

by Samuel Greenberg, edited and with an essay by James Laughlin; new, expanded edition edited by Garrett Caples
New Directions, 72 pp., $11.95 (paper)

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.

Self-portrait by Samuel Greenberg
Fales Library and Special Collections/NYU
Self-portrait by Samuel Greenberg, 1916

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 He was unpublished in his lifetime and died in anonymity.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…

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