“The rhythm is jazz.” — Hart Crane

“What I want to get is … an ‘interior’ form, a form that is so thorough and intense as to dye the words themselves with a pecularity of meaning, slightly different maybe from the ordinary definition of them separate from the poem.” — Hart Crane

It’s his birthday today.

There are good poets. There are major poets. And then there are the ones who disturb the waters, who disrupt, who create new space in their chaotic wake. Walt Whitman. T.S. Eliot. Yeats. And Hart Crane. His life was so short and yet his influence seems to just grow in intensity as the years pass. He was the inspiring force for a whole new generation of writers, each of whom struggled to get out from under his shadow (as Crane struggled to get out of Eliot’s shadow). Tennessee Williams was honest about his feeling of debt to Crane. He used Crane quotations as epigraphs in many of his plays, and dedicated many of his plays to Crane. He kept a picture of Hart Crane over his writing desk for decades. They did not know one another.

Hart Crane killed himself in 1932. (Or, at least, it is believed he killed himself, the events are still somewhat mysterious.) He was on a steamship in the Gulf of Mexico, and made sexual advances to a sailor on board. The sailor rejected Crane, and beat him up. Someone heard Crane shout “GOODBYE EVERYBODY” right before he jumped overboard. His body was never found. He did not leave a suicide note. The story haunts me. His tombstone reads “Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea.”

But before that: Crane managed to cram in a lot of life, and a lot of work.

Crane felt the weight under which he worked, the legacies of Whitman and Eliot, he was a truly American poet, and America was his topic. Much of his work attempted to put America into words. What he was up to was similar to what e.e. cummings was up to, and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance were up to; he was aiming at a high-flung universal vision, putting him in line with Whitman. Crane loved Eliot, realized the impact of Eliot’s work, but had serious philosophical disagreements with Eliot’s pessimistic outlook. Crane didn’t “take on” Eliot lightly. He struggled. He studied Eliot exhaustively. Crane was looking for space within Eliot’s body of work where he could make his own mark. That’s what happens with major figures like Eliot. Sometimes their work so dominates the landscape that nobody can get around or through it. There were other playwrights and poets in Shakespeare’s day, but you have to literally move Shakespeare bodily out of the damn way to get to them. Same with Eliot. (Same with Joyce. Irish writers today still have to either pit themselves AGAINST Joyce, or try to work within his tradition. It’s just a fact of life, you can’t wish him to have never existed.)

Crane, in letter after letter, writes about Eliot, about how he was working WITH Eliot, all by himself, looking for a “way in”. What is so interesting to me about this is that you hear poets talking about Crane in much the same way! Tennessee Williams blatantly stole from him, always giving him a nod, but the influence was so great he couldn’t separate himself. Everything became an homage.

Crane had a harrowing childhood. His mother had a nervous breakdown in 1908 when he was 9 years old. His parents then divorced. Crane was torn between the two of them: He was drawn to his mother, but her love was suffocating. He finally severed all ties with his family. He dropped out of high school and moved to New York City. He was overwhelmed by technology (much of his poetry has to do with the modern world and new technology) and had an apocalyptic outlook, very typical of that time. It seemed like the end times. He was gay, although he had troubled romances with women as well. His important love affairs were all with men, one in particular (a sailor, Emil Opffer) who was the inspiration for “Voyages”, a series of love poems, called by the Norton Anthology “among the most significant love poems of the twentieth century”. (You can read them all here.) Crane was a troubled man and obsessed with writing. As he mentioned in the letter to Tate, William Blake was also a big deal to him. He felt that modern poets often ignored the sublime (what with the cataclysm of WWI), but he was drawn to it. He was into visions, transcendence, dreams. His view of America somehow fit into that dreamscape.

I love Hart Crane. I got into him, incidentally, because of Tennessee Williams’ obsession with him, and I was obsessed with Williams so I just followed the trail of bread crumbs. I’m pretty sure we had to read Crane’s poem on the Brooklyn Bridge (his most famous), but it was through Williams that Crane really got to me.

I love his poem about Herman Melville, although its premonition about Crane’s own end gives an eerie effect.

At Melville’s Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Hart Crane revered Charlie Chaplin, saying about him: “Chaplin may be a sentimentalist, after all, but he carries the theme with such power and universal portent that sentimentality is made to transcend itself.” This may be a case of seeing in your idol the very things you most want to have in yourself, but Crane was right on the money. There is sometimes a “sentimentality” to Crane’s work, but his goal is to transcend. Here is Hart Crane’s poem about Chaplin:


We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Crane had no formal education. His poems are not academic. He was sincere, in all things. That’s probably why Tennessee Williams loved him so much. Crane was unafraid of sentiment. He turned it into lyricism. There is an elegiac quality to much of it, although I’m not sure if it just seems that way to me because of Crane’s early death, throwing himself, drunk, off a ship and drowning. His poems feel, to me, like they are whispered down from a great height of space and time. He determined that he would climb high enough to be able to see far, far into the past, the future, other dimensions.

His most famous poem is “To Brooklyn Bridge.” It was written as an introduction to his long poem “The Bridge” and it is what he is most known for today. It calls to mind Whitman’s epic “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, and perhaps it’s a response to it, since Whitman was never far from Crane’s mind. But progress has occurred: Whitman’s generation crossed the East River by boat. Crane’s generation crossed by bridge. American technological progress. Crane had conflicted feelings about it. Perhaps “To Brooklyn Bridge” is also a response to the London Bridge that shows up in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste land”:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Hart Crane’s “Brooklyn Bridge” a counterpoint to that? To the rot of Europe, perhaps, following WWI?

Bridges are powerful symbols. But notice how he doesn’t get stuck on the details. He doesn’t just describe the Bridge. (So many current poets are descriptive, only. Or their symbols are purely personal. Hence: snoozefest.) Hart Crane considers Brooklyn Bridge and flings himself up into the ether in order to write about these things. Transcendence was what he was after.

from To Brooklyn Bridge

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Chief Justice Evans Hughes said of Charles Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic: “We measure heroes as we do ships, by their displacement. Colonel Lindbergh has displaced everything.”

We know Hart Crane by all that he displaced.


Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

At fifteen, Hart Crane had read Shelley, and two poems seem to have lingered in him: the early quest-vision, Alastor, and the late elegy for Keats, Adonais. Alastor evidently suggested the voyage motif to Crane, while Adonais inspired the rhapsodic “Atlantic” canto of Crane’s epic The Bridge, where Atlantis is stationed last but was the first section of the poem to be composed. Behind Shelley’s speculation [in Alastor], as Crane seems to have known, perhaps through reading P.D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum in 1923, was the Hellenistic myth of Hermes Trismegistus, reputed author of the Poimandres, where Divine Man falls into the ocean that is the cosmos of the love, sleep, and death.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Crane is romantic in intention and temperament, speaking of his “organic” forms; and yet he constructs his poems, he struggles with his diction, he contemplates sections and even stanzas out of sequence. He is making not the river but the bridge. His whole oeuvre is a tragic and resonant contradiction in terms. He speaks of “pouring” his words out.They were eked, with pain and genius, out of him.

Edgell Rickword:

It was New Year’s Day 1929, or thereabout, that I met Hart Crane for the first time. He had been in England a couple of weeks, and had met Paul Robeson and eaten Christmas pudding with Robert Graves and Laura Riding and he was rather miserable. The damp raw London cold ‘was like a knife in the throat,’ he said.

Tennessee Williams, 1944:

It was Clark [Mills] who warned me of the existence of people like Hart Crane and Rimbaud and Rilke, and my deep and sustained admiration for Clark’s writing gently but firmly removed my attention from the more obvious to the purer voices in poetry.

Hart Crane:

[Chaplin is] a dramatic genius that truly approaches the fabulous sort.

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Anderson, Millay, and Crane in Their Letters”, 1953:

It is easy with this volume [of letters] to be reminded of Keats’s letters, and if Crane’s are not quite so extraordinary as that the same must be said for most of English prose.

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Anderson, Millay, and Crane in Their Letters”, 1953:

Poor Crane–a genius from Cleveland–with his little pair of parents, or his pair of little parents, so squeezing in their anxiety and egotism, so screeching in their divorce, the mother rather beached and given to a humble mysticism, the father, dazed and busy, a business success but not really. Crane’s parents are curdling and outrageous by their very multiplicity in America, their typicality; they are as real and to be expected, this young couple, as Cleveland itself…And the son himself, a poet, homosexual, drunkard, a suicide. One had not imagined much coule be added to this macabre, but neat, biography. However, what the letters amazingly suggest is the disturbing possibility that Crane had a happy life.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

The Voyages are poems of intense erotic fulfillment set in the Caribbean, where Crane had sojourned in summertime, with his grandmother, on the Isle of Pines, since he was fifteen. At thirty-two, returning to New York City from a Guggenheim year in Mexico City, Crane drowned himself in the Caribbean, but Voyages II was composed seven years before. “Sleep, death, desire / Close round one instant in one floating flower” has taken on, for some, the authority of prophecy…

Crane prays to “Seasons clear, and awe,” probably in Emily Dickinson’s sense of “awe,” the name she gave to her love for Judge Otis Lord, and which she associated with Eternity. The prayer to be covenanted or bound in time, and the “minstrel galleons of Carib fire” may go back to the bells off San Salvador. The prayer is suicidal, prophesying Crane’s leap into the Caribbean seven years later, since the bodies of the lovers are not to be washed ashore until the seal’s longing gaze for the lost mother is answered “in the vortex of our grave,” which in the Blakean sense of vortex intimates a resurrection, in which subject and object, spirit and body, unite again. And yet the tonalities of this concluding stanza are not suicidal, because desire is exalted over sleep and death. “Bind us” remains the dominant yearning, and the celebration of erotic completion continues to be ecstatic…

Like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Keats’s Great Odes, Crane’s supreme lyric binds us both in and out of time.

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity…Fascinated but repelled by strippers and whores, Hart Crane records squalid homosexual encounters in subway urinals.

Saul Bellow:

I have a special interest in Joyce; I have a special interest in Lawrence. I read certain poets over and over again. I can’t say where they belong in my theoretical scheme; I only know that I have an attachment to them. Yeats is one such poet. Hart Crane is another. Hardy and Walter de la Mare. I don’t know what these have in common – probably nothing. I know that I am drawn repeatedly to these men.

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Anderson, Millay, and Crane in Their Letters”, 1953:

Crane somehow never seems to feel he is galloping to destruction. In this he is very different from Fitzgerald, who had in the midst of chaos the rather cross-eyed power of gazing upon his deterioration as if he were not living it but somehow observing his soul and body as one would watch a drop of water slowly drying up in the sun. Crane, on the other hand, expresses over and over the greatest delight in alcohol; he sees himself as a true lover of the grape rather than a snuffling slave of the bottle, and though the results may be the same, the attitude alters the experience along the way.

Harold Bloom:

I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me – in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems – though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry … where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic. I suppose the only poet of the twentieth century that I could secretly set above Yeats and Stevens would be Hart Crane. Crane was dead at the age of thrity-two, so one doesn’t really know what he would have been able to do. An immense loss. As large a loss as the death of Shelley at twenty-nine or Keats at twenty-five. Crane had to do it all in only seven or eight years.

Tennessee Williams, letter to Jay Laughlin, 1/31/44:

Here is the list of books I wanted. All you have of Rimbaud, the Kafka, anything you recommend by E.M. Forster. Lately my enthusiasm has divided between Crane and Rimbaud but I don’t think Crane would resent the division. Crane would drunkenly declare himself the reincarnation of Christopher Marlowe but I think it is of more significance to observe that he was born less than 10 years after the death of Rimbaud. A restless spirit like Rimbaud’s wouldn’t wait longer to find another earthly residence, though I wonder if he would choose to be a poet again–maybe as expiation–No, he wouldn’t need that, not after that horrible last chapter of his life.

Hart Crane, on “The Bridge”:

Very roughly, it concerns a mystical synthesis of “America.” History and fact, location, etc., all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter. The initial impulses of “our people” will have to be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge, symbol of our constructive future, our unique identity, in which is included also our scientific hopes and achievements of the future. The mystic portent of all this is already flocking through my mind.

Robert Lowell:

“[Hart Crane’s] difficult style is one I’ve never been able to do much with. He can be very obscure and yet write a much more inspired poem than I could by being obscure… I think Crane is the great poet of that generation. He got out more than anybody else. Not only is it the tremendous power there, but he somehow got New York City; he was at the center of things in the way that no other poet was. All the chaos of his life missed getting sidetracked the way other poets did, and he was less limited than any other poet of his generation. There was a fullness of experience; and without that, if you just had his mannerisms and not his rather simple writing – which if done badly would be sentimental merely – or just his obscure writing, the whole thing would be merely verbal. It isn’t with Crane. The push of the whole man is there. But his style never worked for me.”

Hart Crane, letter to his mother, 1927, on the section in The Bridge called “The River”:

I’m trying in this part of the poem to chart the pioneer experiences of our forefathers–and to tell the story backwards as it were, on the “backs” of hobos. These hobos are simply “psychological ponies” to carry the reader across the country and back to the Mississippi, which you will notice is described as a great River of Time. I also unlatch the door to the pure Indian world…so the reader is gradually led back in time to the pure savage world, while existing at the same time in the present…The reader is really led back to the primal physical body of America (Pocahontas), and finally to the central pulse and artery, the Mississippi…The introductory speedy vaudeville stuff (what comes before the line beginning “The last bear…”) is a kind of take-off on all the journalism, advertising, and loudspeaker stuff of the day.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

He had several love affairs with men, including one with the sailor Emil Opffer that became the groundwork of a group of poems called “Voyages,” among the most significant love poems of the twentieth century. His love relationships were often unsuccessful and depressing, but Crane found apocalypse everywhere. He saw all things–bridge, sea, river, ash can–as on the verge of transformation. By fits and starts of imagination and arduous revision in which he pushed his muse more and more violently, he composed impassioned poetry that knots together conflicting feelings. His sublime rhetoric and preoccupation with ecstasy were congenial to Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, but these poets did not attempt what is equally distinctive in Crane, his metaphysical compression.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

…Hart Crane, very much the Shelley of our age and the legitimate claimant to the sad dignity of being the Last Romantic. Extreme as that statement is, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction and The Bridge are Spenserian poems, for the conception of the poem pointing to itself as a poem in Notes and the quest of the poet in The Bridge are both in lineal descent from The Faerie Queene.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

One of the great long poems of the twentieth century, The Bridge is about twelve hundred lines in fifteen sections. Although every piece of the poem has the stamp of verse and syncopated rhythms to blank verse and ballad. The epic reach of the poem is also visible in its historical scope, extending from the Native American origins of America to the arrival of Christopher Columbus to industrialized modernity. Its cast of characters is also heterogeneous, including types such as the drunken sailor and the hobo, historical figures such as Pocahontas, and poets such as Walt Whitman and Edger Allan Poe. Amid its sprawling exuberance, the poem has a shape, moving geographically from east to west–Brooklyn to California–and historically from the present deep into the American past.

Marianne Moore:

I took a great liking to Hart Crane. We talked about French bindings, and he was diffident and modest and seemed to have so much intuition, such a feel for things, for books – really a bibliophile – that I took special interest in him. And Dr. Watson and Scofield Thayer liked him – felt that he was one of our talents, that he couldn’t fit himself into an IBM position to find a livelihood; that we ought to whenever we could, take anything he sent us.

I know a cousin of his, Joe Nowak, who is rather proud of him. He lives here in Brooklyn, and is at the Dry Dock Savings Bank and used to work in antiques. Joe was very convinced of Hart’s sincerity and his innate love of all that I have specified. Anyhow, The Bridge is a grand theme. Here and there I think he could have firmed it up. A writer is unfair to himself when he is unable to be hard on himself.

Hart Crane, letter to Otto Kahn, September 12, 1927, on the section in The Bridge called “The River”:

The extravagance of the first twenty-three lines of this section is an intentional burlesque on the cultural confusion of the present–a great conglomeration of noises analogous to the strident impression of a fast express [the Twentieth Century Limited] rushing by. The rhythm is jazz.

In the empty front page of a collection of Hart Crane’s poems, Tennessee Williams wrote:

State of the World and Myself

I remember that evening, early summer on a mid-western campus – in Iowa. I sat on a white stone balustrade and heard a professional philosopher talk about the ominous state of international affairs. Boys in white shirts, girls in cool white dresses. Youth – respectfully serious, careless, gay. A wide slope of smooth grass, a cool breeze off the river. And loneliness – my oldest companion. The decorous, calm professors and their wives. The threat of war. Reasons for it, causes, solutions, dangers. War! – That was the early summer of 1938 – One year and two months before it came!

This is the summer of 1940 – Ave atque Vale! – Yesterday they bombed, Paris, today Munich, La Havre, Frankfert, Cherbourg, Marseille. Tomorrow? – The Weygand Line may break, Paris may fall, London may be bombed. Destruction procedes implacably like a disease beyond cure. Superficially my life goes one very little concerned with all this. I work. I am lonely. I search for a pleasant companion.

— T.W. 6/5/40

Hart Crane, on “Chaplinesque”:

Chaplin may be a sentimentalist, after all, but he carries the theme with such power and universal portent that sentimentality is made to transcend itself into a new kind of tragedy, eccentric, homely and yet brilliant. It is because I feel that I have captured the arrested climaxes and evasive victories of his gestures in words, somehow, that I like the poem as much as anything I have done.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Hart Crane was moved by The Waste Land, but thought that Eliot’s despair was exaggerated and that his own mission, assisted by Walt Whitman’s example, must be to effect a redemption of Eliot’s disintegrated or corrupted world. While owing a debt to Eliot’s symbolism, cityscapes and generic mixture. Crane made what he called “an almost complete reverse of direction” from Eliot’s “pessimism” toward an “ecstatic goal.” Crane’s major poem, The Bridge (1930), takes the reader backward in time, across the American continent in space, and down emotionally into a modern subterranean hell, but its overriding movement is across the arc of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it passionately and emphatically expresses secular hope against all odds.

Hart Crane, “General Aims and Theories”, on the poem “Voyages”:

When I speak of “adagios of islands,” the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc. And it seems a much more direct and creative statement than any more logical employment of words such as “coasting slowly through the islands,” besides ushering in a whole world of music.

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:

Hart Crane is vaguely familiar [to the Brazilians], maybe. (Lota’s eccentric young nephew, who lends me Kerouac and jazz records, struggles valiantly with H. Crane.)

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Alcoholic and driven by desperate fears of losing his poetic gift, Crane went to Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1931, intending to write an epic on Cortes and Montezuma. Instead, he composed some remarkable lyrics and fragments, the most vital being “The Broken Tower,” which both laments his life and work, and celebrates his only heterosexual love affair, with Peggy Baird, divorced wife of Crane’s friend, the poet-autobiographer Malcolm Cowley. Returning with her from Mexico on a voyage to New York City, Crane jumped overboard to his death on April 27, 1932, three months shy of what would have been his thirty-third birthday.

Michael Schmidt:

His poetry wanted to occupy the kinds of space that Eliot’s and Pound’s did. Yet he had left home and left behind the possibility of further education; he read and read, yet without structure in his reading, without debate and without direction. A poet writing free verse about a local environment might get away with it, but Crane wanted and deserved to exist naturally on a plane with the metropolitan modernists. He should have been an American Lorca. He had the ear for it, perhaps the genius, but he lacked steady sunlight–either love or approbation. In the end his poems were ground out by will. They did not flow from his wonderful imagination. He disliked–despised–himself. He had failed in his own and in his society’s terms.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Chaucer’s disciple Edmund Spenser has the haunting line

The old ruines of a broken tower

My last selection in this book is Hart Crane’s magnificent death ode, “The Broken Tower,” in which Spenser’s line reverberates.

Tennessee Williams, May 26, 1936:

I’ve been reading a lot of Hart Crane’s poetry–like it but hardly understand a single line–of course the individual lines aren’t supposed to be intelligible. The message, if there actually is one, comes from the total effect–much of it has at least the atmosphere of great poetry–it is a lot of raw material, all significant and moving but not chiselled into any communicative shape.

Hart Crane, on the poem “Chaplinesque”:

I am moved to put Chaplin with the poets (of today); hence the “we.” In other words, he, especially in The Kid, made me feel myself, as a poet, as being “in the same boat” with him. Poetry, the human feelings, “the kitten,” is so crowded out of the humdrm, rushing, mechanical scramble of today that the man who would preserve them must duck and camouflage for dear life to keep them or keep himself from annihilation.

Robert Lowell:

“[Hart Crane has] some kind of wildness and power that appeals to me, I guess. But when I wrote difficult poems they weren’t meant to be difficult, though I don’t know that Crane meant his to be… You can have a wonderful time explaining a great poem like ‘Voyages II,’ and it all can be explained, but in the end it’s just a love poem with a great confusion of images that are emotionally clear; a prose paraphrase wouldn’t give you any impression whatever of the poem.”

Harold Bloom:

I think I usually write therapeutically. That is what Hart Crane really taught one. I was talking to William Empson about this once. He never wrote any criticisim of Crane, and he didn’t know whether he liked his poetry or not, but he said that the desperation of Crane’s poetry appealed to him. Using his funny kind of parlance, he said that Hart Crane’s poetry showed that poetry is now a mug’s game, that Crane always wrote every poem as though it were going to be his last. That catches something in Crane which is very true, that he writes each lyric in such a way that you literally feel he’s going to die if he can’t bring it off, that his survival not just as a poet but as a person depends upon somehow articulating that poem. I don’t have the audacity to compare myself to Crane, yet I think I write criticism in the spirit in which he wrote poems.

Tennessee Williams, letter to Margo Jones, 2/12/44:

Such a quiet life I’ve been leading! My society consists of one lady sixty-years-old, whose poetry I revise. I swim at the Y and go to movies and work–last week I addressed a small poetry group on Hart Crane’s poems, two old queers and eight middle-aged women were the audience, appreciative but mystified.

Hart Crane on Joyce’s Ulysses:

The sharp beauty and sensitivity of the thing! The matchless details! His book is steeped in the Elizabethans, his early love, and Latin Church, and some Greek … It is my opinion that some fanatic will kill Joyce sometime soon for the wonderful things said in Ulysses.

Crane, also on Joyce’s Ulysses:

I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

The Waste Land founds its style upon them and so, in an intense agon with Eliot, does the lyrical genius of Hart Crane, who fought Eliot’s vision yet could not resist Eliot’s style and example, the “Preludes” in particular, where urban imagery is raised to an ironic glory.

Hart Crane, letter to Allen Tate on June 12, 1922:

I have been facing [Eliot] for four years, – and while I haven’t discovered a weak spot yet in his armour, – I flatter myself a little lately that I have discovered a safe tangent to strike which, if I can possibly explain the position, – goes through him toward a different goal. You see it is such a fearful temptation to imitate him that at times I have been almost distracted … In his own realm Eliot presents us with an absolute impasse, yet oddly enough, he can be utilized to lead us to, intelligently point to, other positions and ‘pastures new’. Having absorbed him enough we can trust ourselves as never before, in the air or on the sea. I, for instance, would like to leave a few of his ‘negations’ behind me, risk the realm of the obvious more, in quest of new sensations, humeurs.

Hart Crane, letter to Allen Tate, 1922:

I take Eliot as a point of departure toward an almost complete reverse of direction. His pessimism is amply justified, in his own case. But I would apply as much of his erudition and technique as I can absorb and assemble toward a more positive, or (if I must put it so in a sceptical age) ecstatic goal. I should not think of this if a kind of rhythm and ecstacy were not (at odd moments, and rare!) a very real thing to me. I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities as real and powerful now as, say in the time of Blake … After this perfection of death – nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

He succeeded in establishing a polar opposite to Eliot’s early poetry, in getting to the other side of despair (as Eliot himself tried to do later) with his full-throated, secular but visionary poetry.

Michael Schmidt:

What is left behind is a greater sufficiency than most men achieve.

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4 Responses to “The rhythm is jazz.” — Hart Crane

  1. nightfly says:

    I see what you mean about having to move the greats out of the way. Reading that, part of me wants to run out to a coffee shop and hang out with a quill and inkpot, smoking cigarettes and scratching out verses all night. The other part of me reads that and says, “Well, poetry’s right out. Back to Minesweeper!”

  2. Shelley says:

    He died during my time period, and the strange circumstances do draw us in. However, what caught my eye here was the idea of “displacement.” Interesting…and doesn’t that metaphor imply a finite amount of space? In the age of the Internet, it feels more like too much space, or…?

  3. sean g says:

    cool post–love that line-“love is a burnt match skating in a urinal” and thanks for the explanation of “her blacks crackle and drag”

  4. I have a long, personal history with Crane, who challenges me to this day.

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