Hart Crane: Provocative Futurist
Hart Crane is the most underrated poet in the American canon. He's
my favorite poet for the proverbial desert island, and I prefer Crane's
stuff on my night stand to Stevens's or Frost's. He's underrated because
he was too modern for the speakeasy gin fizz era in which he reached
his apex. If you compare him to the sensibilities of, say, Scott Fitzgerald,
who is representative of that time, it becomes clear that the only
similarity is their attraction to the dissipation that modernity could
Crane was uneasy and paradoxical. He was original, and like a weird
abysmal mollusk, would slowly devour himselfthe internal sucking
the lid off the externalthrough self-loathing, Bacardi, porn,
big cigars, and a consuming intolerance for editors who controlled
the demand end of an art of which there was vastly too much supply.
Adam Smith never meant his theory to be applied to something like
poetry, so an editor like Harriet Monroe, was confounded and troubled
by Crane's effervescent dynamo. Today he may have had better luck.
Today, for example, polite readers of the New Yorker in the midwest
read Billy Collins and feel like they're "hip" or "with-it"
and can find catharsis in poetry, when, in fact, they are victims
of something they don't even know exists.
Today Crane at least would at least have found gratification by logging-on
to the Information Porno-highway. Maybe he would not have, like Rimbaud
and Pasolini, suffered so dramatically from the general dissipation
which killed him.
Here's the quick background: He was born in 1899 in Cleveland to a
candy mogul who looked like the Monopoly Manand thought cellophane
was the wave of the futureand a woman who wore white lace but
could angrily shoot arrows out of her eyes. They were vicious and
their marriage was a broiling disaster. Crane read Oscar Wilde, Whitman,
Rabelais, and Rimbaud, and experienced the Dionysian side of life
early. Thus, he moved to New York. He met important people (Otto Kahn,
Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Sherwood Anderson,
Allen Tate). He worked in advertising, but never held any job for
long. He spent time in Mexico and Cuba where he believed he could
live more cheaply. The suicidal end came with a bang, as he predicted,
in 1932. He was on a ship, the Orizaba, 275 miles north of Havana
and 10 miles east of Florida when he fell/jumped and drowned/was sucked
into the propeller/was eaten by sharks. At any rate, he was swallowed
into the beyond, and now lives next to Walt Whitman and Billy Strayhorn
in some pearly memorial of eternal art.
There are a few strange photographs of him: one in a flannel lumberjack
coat, Russian/Thelonious Monk hat, and a penciled-on mustache. In
another, taken in Michoacan, Mexico, he's got on a striped French
sailor shirt and some mojo around his neck. A third picture, which
is surprisingly Halloweenish, shows Crane in white pantaloons, a chef's
hat, and a long scimitar dangling from his belt. He often looked like
he had popped out of a genie's bottle. He was a contradictory figure.
Likes: theatrics, the Brooklyn Bridge, patrons, restless hedonism,
style, men, and his own space. Dislikes: bland or reductive readings
of his work, Cleveland, paying patrons back, romance, fashion, "queer
nymphomania", and sharing space.
His poetry, unlike his life, was perfect. The mistake many readers
make is they want a poet's life to be perfect (when their lives are
often train wrecks at best) and the poems themselves to be imperfect!
This we can chalk up to slothful reading. Crane was an extraordinary,
fantastic, electric, poet. If Terry Gross or Charlie Rose ever ask
me, I'll say that Crane was a big influence on my own poems.
What we see often in contemporary poetry is poets trying to tell narratives
in a new way. These poets combine experimental systems with lyrical
and narrative modes. Calvin Bedient called this "soft avant-garde."
This began with Crane. He was the catalyst, the grand-pop, the germ
seed. Take, for example, the third section of "Voyages":
Infinite consanguinity it bears
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.
And so, admitted through black swollen
That must arrest all distance otherwise,
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wrestling there incessantly with
Star kissing star through wave on wave
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed,
Presumes no carnage, but this single
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands...
That's beautiful. The same poem also contains these phrases for which
most poets would make a Faustian bargain: "The bottom of the
sea is cruel," "Bequeath us to no earthly shore until /
Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal's wide spindthrift
gaze toward paradise," "Your eyes already in the slant of
drifting foam; / Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know: /
Draw in your head and sleep the long way home."
There is a blues aesthetic running through the energy of these phrases,
and in most of these poems. By "blues aesthetic," I mean
a tragicomic world view which is manifested in songlike and musical
phrases dripping with anguish for what is lost, irretrievable, or
felt but not acquired.
Crane's poems are about making the words move. Crane believedand
this may be the guiding principle of his capability,that "emotional
dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized
definitions; in poetry the rationale of metaphor belongs to another
order of experience. Images, totally dissociated, when joined in the
circuit of a particular emotion located with specific relation to
both of them, conduce to great vividness and accuracy of statement
in defining that emotion" (letter from Crane to Harriet Monroe,
This blues aesthetic is what gives Crane's best poems their uneasy
sensuality and their strange announcement that sex is both fascinating
and incomprehensible. A blues aesthetic is about choosing to feel
joyful in spite of conditions.
A difficult part of life is understanding or accepting contradictory
and simultaneous emotions. Crane's work is supreme because it clarifies
the sensation that life and beauty, the real and the imagined, the
communicable and the incommunicable are not contradictions, and should
not be perceived as such.
Take as another example of this blues aesthetic, the effervescent
urbanity of "The Tunnel":
And somehow anyhow swing
The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves,
A burnt match skating in a urinal
Somewhere above Fourteenth TAKE THE
To brush some new presentiment of pain
and later on in "The Tunnel":
A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam,
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare
stove up the River.
I counted the echoes assembling, one
Searching, thumbing the midnight on
Lights, coasting, left the oily tympanum
The blackness somewhere gouged glass
on a sky.
It's a sad story, but graceful. In Crane's response to Harriet Monroe
at Poetry magazine, he says there are major differences between
poetic metaphor and ordinary logic. He says: "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."
When people try to reduce poems, Crane's particularly, to subject
matter, they deny the actuality that the feeling is carried by the
image and that the metaphor's referent has more to do with creating
an emotion rather than a remembrance of an emotion. The relationship
between the concept of the poem and the sound-images used to transmit
the dynamics of metaphor is a psychological relationship. This quality
is an ultra-logic that is independent of the usual (non-poetic) definitions
of the words and images employed.
When Crane says [in "The Marriage of Faustus and Helen"]:
"Accept a lone eye riveted to your plane, / Bent axle of devotion
along companion ways / That beat, continuous, to hourless days
/ One inconspicuous, glowing orb of praise" he is overwhelmed
and ecstatic about a dimension of the world, in which love allows
immortality and permits the speaker to a) find recompense if he delivers
himself wholly up to it, and b) conquer blue demons which torture
Crane was obsessed with getting words to move beyond the simplest
conceptions of emotion and thought, of sensation and lyrical sequence.
Monroe thought that the beauty for which Crane was searching was "tortured
and lost," but she was apparently using two styrofoam cups and
string to catch messages hurtling through the stratosphere.
Like Keats one hundred years prior, Crane produced a passion and an
aliveness in his poems that he worked his whole life to be able to
create intelligently in no time at all. I have the sense that when
he was really creating, he could use the language-feeling system in
his subconscious mindas if he was taking transcriptionto
actualize a unifying and elegant noise that will gratify readers even
hundreds of years later. Poems of this highest quality make a dead
person's spirit become a part of nature.
Crane is my favorite because he can make an air plant have a tremendous
emotional significance. He "whispers antophonal in azure swing"
and heard more music than most of us can even imagine. He was proof
that "the imagination spans beyond despair, / Outpacing bargain,
vocable and prayer." It matters not that he leapt, with a black
eye, pajamas, and topcoat into the ocean about which he wrote so precisely.
Crane's poems make love understandable to your ears. His imagined
words astound me because they appear to be a possible response to
the human condition that we must rely on imperfect words to actually
name our feelingsan impossible task. In our current age of dry
salvage, war, and fear, is there anything else more necessary?
Paraphrase is a poor substitute for the organized conception Crane
put into the essentialized forms of the poems themselves. To these
ends, I recommend the primary and secondary texts:
Crane, Hart. Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. by Mark Simon.
New York: Liveright, 1993.
Fisher, Clive. Hart Crane: A Life. New Haven: Yale, 2002.
Hammer, Langdon and Brom Weber, eds. O My Land, My Friends: The
Selected Letters of Hart Crane. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows,
Mariani, Paul. The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane. New
York: WW Norton, 1999.