The poetry of Hart Crane, from the American epic to personal belonging
January 19, 2014 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Hart Crane was a poet, one who was known by and friends with other notable poets. The poet e. e. cummings claimed that "Crane’s mind was no bigger than a pin, but it didn’t matter; he was a born poet" (Google books preview). Tennessee Williams said he could "hardly understand a single line" but insisted he wanted to be buried at sea at the "point most nearly determined as the point at which Hart Crane gave himself back." Crane had his critics — Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound come to mind, and William Carlos Williams wrote "There is good there but it’s not for me" — but Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to read "The Bridge" together, John Berryman wrote one of his famous elegies on Crane and heavyweight Robert Lowell included his “Words for Hart Crane” in "Life Studies." Science/Fiction author, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) also wrote that "nobody seems to have noticed that Hart Crane really was the first space poet," quoting lines from his epic The Bridge in the story Mother in the Sky with Diamonds. Those are all words by other people, why not read a few from Crane?

Harold Hart Crane was the son of a candy-maker, who invented Life Savers, but sold the patent for very little money. Hart, Harold's mother's maiden name, dropped out of high school and moved to New York City where he got involved with the art scene, and started drinking. In his art, however, he showed surprising optimism. Critics have contended that for Crane, misery and despair were redeemed through the apprehension of beauty, and in some of his greatest verses he articulated his own quest for redemption.

All in all, Crane lived a tumultuous life, a life reflected in what one critic disparagingly called his "Rube Goldberg rhetoric." Maturing in a time when an astonishing range of poetic styles were competing with each other for ascendancy, Crane as an apprentice poet seems to have sampled one and all. The early poems that open his first collection, White Buildings (1926), are a veritable taxonomy of the options open to a young poet eager to learn to write in a modern style. There is the Eliotic ennui of "Modern Craft," and the sumptuous imagism of "October-November." Gusto of a Poundian sort breaks out from the solemn quatrains of "Praise for an Urn" and the children in "Poster" (the opening of "Voyages I") step out of a Wallace Stevens seascape.

White Buildings collects the following poems (the links below go to some individual poems hosted by Poetry Foundation, with a couple recordings by Tennessee Williams)
  1. Legend
  2. Black Tambourine
  3. Emblems of Conduct
  4. My Grandmother’s Love Letters (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text)
  5. Sunday Morning Apples
  6. Praise for an Urn
  7. Garden Abstract
  8. Stark Major
  9. Chaplinesque
  10. Pastorale
  11. In Shadow
  12. The Fernery
  13. North Labrador
  14. Repose of Rivers
  15. Paraphrase
  16. Possessions
  17. Lachrymae Christi
  18. Passage
  19. The Wine Menagerie
  20. Recitative
  21. For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen
  22. At Melville’s Tomb
  23. Voyages I, II, III, IV, V, VI (poem guide to "Hart Crane's tour de force of homosexual love"; Voyages V, read by Tennessee Williams)
That same year, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem "At Melville's Tomb," Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force. (PDF of A Letter to Harriet Monroe).

In 1930, Hart Crane's place in the Modernist pantheon is established by The Bridge. Not all of his work is so conspicuously proclaiming itself as modern. He learned from Pound and Eliot that the imperative ‘to make it new’ was no excuse for a deracinated free-for-all. Modernity looked to the future but depended on the past. Indeed, The Bridge itself, whatever else it may be, is largely a meditation on American history. This much is obvious.

The Bridge
The Bridge / To Brooklyn Bridge (and read by Tennessee Williams)
I. Ave Maria (scanned document)
II. Powhatan's Daughter III. Cutty Sark (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text)
IV. Cape Hatteras (embedded PDF)
V. Three Songs VI. Quaker Hill
VII. The Tunnel
VIII. Atlantis

There have been a number of efforts to provide annotation, both in print and online, for The Bridge. Here are three online resources: Hart Crane’s The Bridge: A Digital Resource is a collaborative student project and a product of a semester-long investigation of American modernist poetry - , the site seeks to operate as a resource for students and scholars of Crane’s poem. Annotations to Hart Crane's The Bridge is a Wikispace set up to allow public annotation of the volume, and if you have institutional access to Project MUSE resources, Fordham University Press has put online Hart Crane's 'The Bridge' - An Annotated Edition.

On April 27, 1932, Hart Crane, a poet from Garrettsville, Portage County, Ohio, jumped off a ship called the Orizaba into the Atlantic Ocean at 12:02 p.m. People aboard the boat tossed life-preservers towards him, but he made no attempt to save himself.

One of Crane’s fellow passengers, Gertrude Berg, recalled that that morning “he had a black eye and looked generally battered.”

Close to noon, when the passenger steamship was anywhere between 30 to 60 miles off Key West, Crane appeared on deck. “He walked to the railing,” Berg remembered, “took off his coat, folded it neatly over the railing — not dropping it on deck — placed both hands on the railing, raised himself on his toes and then dropped back.

“We all fell silent and watched him, wondering what in the world he was up to. Then, suddenly, he vaulted over the railing and jumped into the sea. “Just once I saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.”

Before he fell from the stern of the U.S.S. Orizaba several miles off Key West, never to be seen again, the great American poet Hart Crane planned to produce a third collection of poetry he called "Key West: An Island Sheaf." But Crane himself never did make it to Key West. And the actual poem in the sheaf titled "Key West" is so obscure -- in the sense of difficult -- that it has remained just about incomprehensible. With that said, here it is:

Key West: An Island Sheaf (scanned as part of The Collected Poems of Hart Crane (Black & Gold Edition))
  1. O Carib Isle! (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text)
  2. The Mermen
  3. To the Cloud Juggler
  4. The Mango Tree
  5. Island Quarry
  6. Old Song
  7. The Idiot
  8. A Name for All
  9. Bacardi Spreads the Eagle’s Wing
  10. Imperator Victus
  11. Royal Palm (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text)
  12. The Air Plant
  13. The Hurricane (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text; alternate source)
  14. Key West
  15. —And Bees of Paradise
  16. To Emily Dickinson
  17. Moment Fugue
  18. By Nilus Once I Knew . . .
  19. To Shakespeare
That wasn't the last collection of Crane's work. Twelve pieces, including two from Key West, were published in a collection of poems in The Urn, January 1933 (scanned document)
  1. Reliquary
  2. Purgatorio
  3. The Circumstance
  4. Imperator Victus
  5. Havana Rose
  6. The Sad Indian
  7. The Visible the Untrue
  8. Reply
  9. By Nilus Once
  10. Phantom Bark
  11. A Postscript
  12. Enrich My Resignation
Various uncollected works:
* Eternity, read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text; The Poem That Changed My Life, by Gerald Stern
* Carmen de Boheme, read by Tom O'Bedlam
* Carrier Letter, also called Exile
* Fear
* Forgetfulness
* Interior
* The Great Western Plains
* One of Hart's last poems, The Broken Tower (read by Tennessee Williams, with accompanying text; alternate source)
* And on The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932

The Modern American Poetry Site has more collected writings on Crane, and Open Yale Course ENGL 310: Modern Poetry has a two-part lecture on Crane: Part 1, Part 2.
posted by filthy light thief (22 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:07 PM on January 19, 2014

His relative prolixity and particular kind of mystery reminds me of Dylan Thomas.
posted by clockzero at 5:10 PM on January 19, 2014

There's a bronze sculpture of Crane about 100 feet from my office- sadly rather hidden.
posted by billcicletta at 5:20 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by zarq at 5:36 PM on January 19, 2014

Wait, is it December 2014 already?? it still December 2013? I'm so confused.
posted by nevercalm at 5:45 PM on January 19, 2014

I used to email writings to strangers via a mailing list. Sometimes they wrote back.

Once, I sent out a single sentence piece to which only four people responded, but three of those four mentioned Hart Crane, who I'd never read. Of course, I then sought out his work and, though I appreciated it, never understood why anyone, let alone 75% of responders, would be reminded of his words while reading mine. Of the almost 1000 things I sent to that mailing list, it was the only time his name ever came up.

Nice post, flt.
posted by dobbs at 5:52 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Crane is pretty rad. I read a lot of him in uni, especially The Bridge.

Jasper Johns did a painting about him. It's called "Periscope (Hart Crane)."
posted by juv3nal at 6:04 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

All good poetry is a mystery to me. I respond to the words viscerally. I have always loved reading Hart Crane aloud. Thank you, flt.
posted by No Explanation at 6:06 PM on January 19, 2014

I mean srsly:
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel—

telepathy of wires

index of night
posted by juv3nal at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2014

I recommend reading Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and Crane's "The Bridge" as companion pieces. Ideally sitting on the bridge, suspended over that lurid stretch of water and time.
posted by rikschell at 6:22 PM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just read Eileen Myles' memoir Inferno, and she writes about Hart Crane. I found the chapter online here.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 6:53 PM on January 19, 2014

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

~ Hart Crane
posted by chance at 6:58 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

chance -- that's stephen crane, not hart crane
posted by munyeca at 7:23 PM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

John T. Irwin's book on Hart Crane from 2011 "Hart Crane's Poetry : Appollinaire lived in Paris, I live in Cleveland, Ohio" is a delight. I recommend it.
posted by reuvenc at 7:44 PM on January 19, 2014

Hart Cranewas my hero in highschool, i need to read him again
posted by PinkMoose at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2014

Phenomenal post!
posted by Vibrissae at 8:22 PM on January 19, 2014

Jasper Johns did a painting about him. It's called "Periscope (Hart Crane)."

I should give some context for this.

One, section IV of The Bridge has a section that goes:

What whisperings of far watches on the main,
Relapsing into silence, while time clears
Our lenses, lifts a focus, resurrects
A periscope to glimpse what joys or pain
Our eyes can share or answer--then deflects
Us, shunting to a labyrinth submersed
Where each sees only his dim past reversed...

Two, there is apocrypha/rumour that as Crane plunged into the water, his arm was outstretched, bent at the wrist (for all that might say about his sexuality), resembling a periscope. Almost certainly a fabrication, but it makes for a neat story.
posted by juv3nal at 8:34 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh my god.

There goes the rest of my day.
posted by jokeefe at 7:36 AM on January 20, 2014

Crane has been my favorite American poet for years. My copy of Simon's edition of the poems is a wreck, marked up and water-stained from taking it to the beach.

In '07, in connection with the publication of the Library of America Crane edition, Charles Bernstein, Brian Reed, and Samuel Delaney participated in a symposium at Penn on Crane. It's very worth listening to. And Delaney's knowledge of Crane really made me wish he'd devote some time to writing a new Crane bio.

Also I think I've remarked on it here before, but I've always been fascinated/delighted by the fact that Crane and Lovecraft were both close friends with the poet Samuel Loveman. I'm not aware of any evidence that Lovecraft and Crane ever knew each other, but it doesn't seem unlikely that they at least knew of each other.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:15 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Brilliant post, thanks.
posted by ersatz at 9:45 AM on January 20, 2014

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

Stephen Crane--not a better poet, but a different generation. (I missed the earlier note on this.)
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:54 PM on January 20, 2014

Once, long ago I read something appreciative enough of Hart that I was interested. When I found a used copy of Bridge, I leafed through it, thought maybe there was a Wallace Stevens hiding in there somewhere, and took it home.

I never did manage to tune it. It was as though there was something very exciting going on just on the other side of a hill I couldn't find my way around, though I could hear the cheers. I struggled as if I was trying to find a way to hear an FM broadcast listening a single-sideband receiver.

It's like those faint stars you can't see directly, you have to look to one side or the other - frustrating. Hart's a kaleidoscope of colliding images, an Antheil of mechanisms. And I damned well wish I knew how to make out his voice amongst it all. Ocean knows.
posted by Twang at 12:48 AM on January 28, 2014

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