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This review is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.AEOLIAN HART
Is Hart Crane the least read, even the least influential, modern American poet? Though I have no real evidence, I have the sense that he is. His genius is so singular that his verse can only be admired, not emulated or even imitated; he is influential only in his greatness. The contemporary temperament prefers the cool detachment of Stevens, Williams, Bishop, and the early Lowell to the passionate modernism of Crane. If much modern American poetry is motivated by the struggle to break with Walt Whitman (remember Pound's false truce with his rival), Crane was unashamed in his marriage to his Master; from 'Cape Hatteras', 'But who has held the heights more sure than thou,/O Walt!Ascensions of thee hover in me now.' Updating 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry', Crane's long poem 'The Bridge' mixed a Whitmanesque vision of ecstatic communion among multitudes with an electrifyingly anachronistic rendition of the modern cityscape:
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractional idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path - condense eternity:
And we have seen light lifted in thine arms.
Crane's choice of the Brooklyn Bridge (which was completed in 1883) as his avatar of modernism signalled the essentially nineteenth-century sensibility with which he confronted the alienating speed of twentieth century life; not surprisingly, when he was commissioned by a glossy magazine to write a piece on the George Washington Bridge (completed 1931) he failed to write a word.
Of course, Crane was famously intractable. He announced when he was ten that he would be a poet and stuck to that course until his early death by suicide in 1933. He quarrelled with, yet remained dependent on, his mid-western parents (domineering dad, cloying mom) throughout their lives; he left any job he tried (and he did try), formed no lasting romantic attachments with either sex, was poverty stricken, and apt to end up in jail after a night of cruising New York's docks and dives. His life was at least as wretched as Baudelaire's, and was of the kind that makes the critic reach despairingly for the explanatory cliché of 'the artist as genius', since there seems to be no other way to account for the literary force of nature that was Hart Crane.
Like Paris for Baudelaire, New York galvanised Crane by presenting in its anonymous multitudes a subject to which Crane could offer his desperate communion. (This on top of the more practical fact that its cosmopolitanism offered relief from Crane's stifling middle-American upbringing.) While Whitman's egoism was always transcendentally optimistic, Crane was pessimistic in his inability to distance himself from what was around him - something which becomes a poetic scourging. No where is the city more hellish in its disconnection than in Crane's Dantesque subway ride into 'The Tunnel':
Whose head is swinging from the swollen strap?
Whose body smokes along the bitten rails,
Bursts from a smoldering bundle far behind
In back forks of the chasms of the brain...
In this hell-hole, Crane can only hint at transitory connection; his 'and love/A burnt match skating in a urinal ' can plausibly be read as a clue to his cruising. But the poem ends with a kind of redemption in the surfacing ('like Lazarus') to the sound of waters, 'Unceasing with some Word that will not die. . . !'
In his final poem, 'The Broken Tower', Crane writes of his poetic task
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
It is that transitory holding that gives Crane's verse its desperate power, its deeply packed rush of metaphors and figures of connection. When Crane was at peace he was capable of an incredible lyrical stillness; his 'The Harbor Dawn' is one of the great twentieth-century love poems, even though it sounds as though it could have been written by Shelley:
Cool featherly fold, suspends, distills
This wavering slumber... Slowly -
Immemorially the window, the half-covered chair
Asks nothing but this sheath of pallid air.
These moments are rare though and Crane is soon restlessly out again, travelling through the broken world, trying to mend it into meaning. For the quintessential New York poet (Frank O'Hara's 'I go here' poems are direct descendants of Crane's city scenes), Crane was also a poet of voyaging, writing about America's frontier and its landscape. These subjects were testing grounds for his attempt to marry the present - the Wright Brothers' plane, the Twentieth Century Limited - to the grace note of harmony he found in Brooklyn Bridge. In this American journey, Crane is always aware of life's costs and its losers - the hobo, the down and out, the Mississippi, 'A liquid theme that floating niggers swell' - as the twentieth century speeds omnivorously away:
The last bear, shot drinking in the Daklotas
Loped under wires, that span the mountain stream.
Keen instruments, strung to a vast precision
Bind town to town and dream to ticking dream.
Americans have always had a divided sense of modernity. Modernism's appalling power is compelling even as we continually try to escape its alienating speed by maintaining or creating some touchstone (however fictive and transitory they turn out to be) of connection. Henry Adams counterposed modernism with tradition with his manichean schema of 'The Dynamo' and 'The Virgin.' In truth, things were always messier and more mixed than the great pessimist's neat schema would have it. For instance, the modernism of the Brooklyn Bridge's design was masked by a superfluous stone cladding that gives it a neo-gothic air; a gesture to the traditional and the known that fooled no one. Similarly, the ornateness of Crane's passionate, mage-like voice cannot hide his wounds:
Yes, while the heart is wrung,
Arise - yes, take this sheaf of dust upon your tongue!
In one last angelus lift throbbing throat -
Listen, transmuting silence with that stilly note...
Yet Crane's reach always exceeded his grasp; he could never escape the reality of that burnt match. It is his attempt to bridge the divide between what he saw and what he desired that gives his verse its singular power.
By the time he wrote 'The Broken Tower', Crane had come to identify his own body with the body of his poetic subject, matching its pulse beats and vein surge. He never could achieve Whitman's bardic detachment. As Baudelaire had dreamed of an 'anywhere out of this world', Crane attempted an escape of his own, into the tropics ('Leave us, you idols of Futurity - alone'). He found there only a landscape of blasted heat, awaiting the next hurricane. In the 'Air Plant' he found a last thin remnant of life and transcendence in 'This tuft that thrives on saline nothingness./Inverted octopus with heavenward arms/Thrust parching from a palm-bole by the cove ' Juddered by the tropics like his air-plant by the hurricane's premonitory wind, Crane did not survive the experience. Returning to the United States from Mexico, his throat closed by dust, he put an end to his seeking by jumping from the ship at 12 noon on 27 April 1932. His body was never found and the vessel continued on to dock in New York City, hopefully on the East River.
DAVID C. WARD
This review is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.