Aliki Barnstone



Crossing Hart Crane's Broken Bridge from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century or What Writers Can Learn from Hart Crane

"Great works of art have no more affecting lesson than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility." —Ralph Waldo Emerson


Long ago, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley and taking a course in
Modern Poetry, I proved myself very unhip by launching into a defense of Hart
Crane’s work. My classmates and professor had made themselves giddy with their
escalating rhetoric deriding “The Bridge,” and I was the killjoy who talked
about the beauty of the language. Recently, when I mentioned to a poet-friend
that I was writing about what writers can learn from Hart Crane, he responded,
“How about what not to do?” I recounted a story: when Crane stayed with Alan
Tate and Carolyn Gordon, and Gordon confronted him for not helping around the
house, he responded, “I’m too sensitive and nervous to do housework.” My friend
said, “That says it all, doesn’t it? He writes the poems, but he’s too sensitive
and nervous to clean them up.” Now I’m afraid I’m going to make myself very
unhip again. My intent when I began this piece was to defend Crane, but as I
reread, I found myself recoiling. I’d never written about a writer I wasn’t in
love with, and now I’d fallen out of love with Hart, viscerally. You’ve been
there, too, haven’t you? You’re lying awake in bed, thinking you hate the way
your lover smells and hate the way your lover breathes. Hart and I were in a bad
way. Before I would have gladly become a boy for him, now I didn’t want to
pledge, “never to let go,” didn’t even want to cock my hip, play Walt Whitman,
and put my hand in his, “so—”
I searched inside as we do when love drops us into the abyss and “elevators drop
us from our day.” I asked, “Why this revulsion?” What was it that I loved
before? Why did I forgive his flaws? The problem for me now lies in the
abhorrence I feel for the body of work, the same body that before was an ecstasy
to read, when “cool arms murmurously about me lay.” Then I swooned for Hart—who
wouldn’t?—when he writes in “The Harbor Dawn”:
And you beside me blessèd now while sirens
Sing to us, stealthily weave us into day—
Serenely now, before day claims our eyes
Your cool arms murmurously about me lay.


While myriad snowy hands are clustering at the panes—
Your hands within in my hands are deeds;
My tongue upon your throat—singing
arms close…
How do writers learn from each other? By reading creatively, by knowing the work
practically carnally, knowing it from head to foot, until with the “tongue upon
your throat—singing / arms close,” the dead text comes alive, until “your hands
within my hands are deeds,” are words on the page. Here in what Barton St.
Armand calls the “ghostly intimacy” of influence, the arms and throat and hands
of Crane’s body of work sing with Whitman, whose hand Hart holds throughout “The
Bridge,” in an ecstatic reading. We hear between the pulses of Crane’s
“bare-stript heart” this passage from “Song of Myself”:
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the
best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.


I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my
bare-stript heart,
And reach’d til you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
In both Crane and Whitman the reader is the lover. Both passages come into
language from making love, from sensations of fog or grass, of waking from dream
to dawn, from flesh to words. Whitman has revised the passages from the New
Testament in which Mary washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and anoints his head
with precious oil. Crane in “The Harbor Dawn” sings a musical bridge across the
century, echoing Whitman’s imperative to “loose the stop from your throat” with
“my tongue upon your throat.” He hears the biblical in Walt and he consecrates
it: “And you beside me blessèd now while sirens /Sing to us.” “The Harbor Dawn”
might be Crane’s Ars Poetica of influence. The poem begins:
Insistently through sleep—a tide of voices—
They meet you listening midway in your dream,
The long, tired sounds, fog-insulated noises:
Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails,
Far strum of fog horns. . . signals dispersed in veils.
While Whitman listens attentively to “the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd
voice,” Crane meets the voices “midway in dream,” translates the “Far strum of
fog horns. . . signals dispersed in veils.” Crane makes a symphony from the
lulls and hums and strums of the now and the texts of the past. Listen—you can
hear Eliot’s voice coming through the fog, and Dickinson’s voice in white
surplices. In “The Harbor Dawn” I mind how Hart has lain and loafed with each
loved poet into “a transparent morning” and come into his own vision and music,
as when he writes the rigorously modern line: “The window goes blond slowly.
Frostily clears.”
So, after all this beauty and transport, you may ask, why the post-coital
depression? Because Crane fails so often to make “Your hands within in my hands”
into “deeds,” and to fulfill his promise. To go back to my classmates at
Berkeley, for a moment, I believe that one reason they found it so easy to scorn
Crane is because his work thwarts the expectations of high modernism when in The
Bridge he returns to Whitman’s romanticism. Though Eliot’s influence is
everywhere in Crane, it is not the moderns but the nineteenth century Americans
that make him wild with it. I’m the same way myself and perhaps that’s why
before I stood by my man. Before I felt that those who failed to love Crane had
failed to read creatively; now I see that I retreat when Crane fails to be
animating reader, and so fails at his own Emersonian poetics.
Crane writes in “General Aims and Theories” that he puts “no particular value on
the simple objectives of ‘modernity,’” nor on the “deliberate program . . . of a
‘break’ with the past or tradition . . . . [The poet] must tax his sensibility
and his touchstone of experience for the proper selection of these themes . . .
and that is where he either stands, or falls into useless archeology.” (Weber
218). The ideal poem for Crane evokes a Blakean “’innocence’ or absolute
beauty,” a consciousness which discovers “under new forms certain spiritual
illuminations,” which shine “from experience directly, and not from previous
precepts or preconceptions. It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it
a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate,
but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness
henceforward” (Weber 221) Crane here recasts Emersonian self-reliance in which
one must free oneself from received ideas. Emerson eschews “influence” in
principle when he calls for a poet who will make “America a poem in our eyes.”
He redefines influence as an ecstatic instant in which the poet ascends to an
“absolute”—“For all poetry was all written before time was” (185). Emerson
proclaimed the poets “liberating gods” who “unlock our chains and admit us to a
new scene” (194). The operative phrase here is new scene. The poet delivers us
to the new scene of our own creativity, and, as Crane so beautifully puts it,
the “new word” becomes “an active principle” in the reader’s consciousness. In
his “The Harbor Dawn,” in “The River,” and in other moments of startling
imagination and music, Crane builds a Brooklyn Bridge from the nineteenth to the
twentieth century, from the 1930s to the now, as we can see in these lines from
the Proem:
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity.
Sadly, as though he predicted his own fatal weakness and his own inability to
embrace the ghostly intimacies of the past and urge forward into his own “new
word,” Crane’s work often falls, he puts it, “into useless archeology.” Too
often Crane swings to the other pole of Emerson’s notion of influence, as when
Emerson admonishes, “Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic” (127) and
presciently for Crane, “Imitation is suicide” (121). It is painful and annoying
to linger too long on Crane’s infelicities (which are also infidelities to his
predecessors), but bear with me little longer while I complain. Here is an
example of Crane’s failure to dwell in the possibilities of past texts, and so
we see him kill himself by imitating an imitation of poetry, which makes for an
ersatz Hart Crane, as appealing as imitation margarine:
Behold the dragon’s covey—amphibian, ubiquitous
To hedge the sea, wrap the headland, ride
The Blue’s cloud-templed districts unto ether…
While Iliads glimmer through eyes raised in pride
Hell’s belt springs wider into heaven’s plumed side.
O bright circumferences, heights employed to fly
War’s fiery kennel masked in downy offings,—
What a turn off. If there are some good turns of phrase here, I am so revolted
by the words surrounding them that I can’t hear them. And ain’t I righteous when
I yell, “That’s a load of crap!”—and slam out the door. Imagine your despair if
one of your students turned in work like this. It would be a smart, misguided
student who had played too many games of Dungeons and Dragons, who had read too
many adventure, war stories and fantasies, and needed to forget about King
Arthur. You would be gentle and tell the student that there was some lovely
music here, some fine imagination, but he might try to let his own voice speak,
instead of some idea of poesy. But wait! This isn’t the work a nineteen-year-old
boy majoring in engineering, these are the lines of the canonized poet Hart
Crane, overwritten, bombastic, over-mannered, and hackneyed. “While Iliads
glimmer though eyes raised in pride” sounds the patriotic mumbo-jumbo of the
worst presidential speeches. I hear Crane trying to echo Milton’s rhetoric and
Dickinson’s circumference, yet these lines are not even archaic, they are
anachronistic, meaning they are outside of time—if only they weren’t preserved
with ink, and outside of time in that other way. Neither Dickinson nor Milton
would sound like this because they wrote in their own present time and
brilliantly into ours. When Crane writes this badly—and I’ve found so many awful
passages—he betrays us all, and not with a kiss; he turns his face away, won’t
come close as a reader or to his reader.
Now I feel sick as Blake’s rose. I want to cross over to Hart and I want you, my
readers, to cross, too. How can we cross this bridge now that I’ve attenuated
the girders and torn up the pavement? Poor broken Hart, Pretty Boy. Drunken
Crane. Hart stopped too young. Poor Crane lifting the up the pieces of his
broken Bridge. Ah, and that’s what I love about him, the Hart of romance and
formal prosody coupled with the Crane of technology and modernity.
Now let’s cruise down “The River.” He writes:
—can you
imagine—while an EXPRESS makes time like
SCIENCE—COMMERCE and the HOLY GHOST
RADIO ROARS IN EVERY HOME WE HAVE THE NORTHPOLE
WALLSTREET AND VIRGINBIRTH WITHOUT STONES OR
WIRES OR EVEN RUNning brooks connecting ears
and no more sermons window flashing roar
breathtaking—as you like it . . . eh?
So the 20th Century—so
whizzed the Limited—roared by and left
three men, still hungry on the tracks, ploddingly
watching the tail lights wizen and converge, slip-
ping gimleted and neatly out of sight.
All right. No more transparent mornings and afternoons loafing and exploring
Crane’s whole body, slowly, intimately. “So the 20th Century—so whizzed the
Limited—roared by and left” us kinky and transgressive. When Hart grins at me
and says, “breathtaking—as you like it . . . eh?” I say, “Yes!” I’m a boy for
him again. I mark his hot spots and bend him open for a half-clothed, zipless
quickie in some bathroom stall on an as-yet unbuilt bullet train criss-crossing
America. In my fantasy, Hart Crane and I are
Watching the tail lights wizen and converge, slip-
ping gimleted and neatly out of sight
—and into the twenty-first century imagination.


WORKS CITED


Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, The Centennial Edition. Introd.
Harold Bloom.
Edited Marc Simon. New York: Liveright, 2001
Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems and Selected Prose of Hart Crane. Edited and
Introd. Brom Weber.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor, 1966.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson's Prose and Poetry. Edited by Saudra Morris and
Joel Porte. New
York: Norton, 2001.
Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett.
New York:
Norton, 1973.

 

 

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