Sean Singer

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 propel.

Crane was uneasy and paradoxical. He was original, and like a weird abysmal mollusk, would slowly devour himself—the internal sucking the lid off the external—through 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 Man—and thought cellophane was the wave of the future—and 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 sky
     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 gates
     That must arrest all distance otherwise,—
     Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
     Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
     Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
     Your body rocking!
     and where death, if shed,
     Presumes no carnage, but this single change,—
     Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
     The silken skilled transmemberment of song;

     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 believed—and 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, 1926).

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, and love
     A burnt match skating in a urinal—
     Somewhere above Fourteenth TAKE THE EXPRESS
     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 after one,
     Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
     Lights, coasting, left the oily tympanum of waters;
     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 a human.

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 mind—as if he was taking transcription—to 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 feelings—an 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, 1997.
Mariani, Paul. The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane. New York: WW Norton, 1999.



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