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
     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. Introduction by Harold Bloom. Edited by Marc Simon. New York: Liveright, 2001
Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems and Selected Prose of Hart Crane. Edited and
Introduced by 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.



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review