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I once counted Hart Crane among my dozen or so favorite American poets. Today I pulled out my Complete Poems and Selected Letters and realized I no longer really like Hart Crane's poetry...not even the hip-to-like Key West: An Island Sheaf. Okay "Oh Carib Isle!" is one poem that still reads well. But it's all that Baudelairean decadence set in a rather Conradian tropical setting that pulls that one off, all those dark scintillations coming off his "Carbonic amulet / sere of the sun exploded in the sea." Okay, it's more Rimbaudian than Baudelairean I guess. Very much like Rimbaud's image of eternity as "the sea mixed with the sun." (The "sun mixed with the sea" sounds a better translation to me, even if it's an inversion.) And Crane does have that great image of the sea as "Samite sheeted and processioned" (from "Voyages II"). And I suppose the pathos of "The Broken Tower" still resonates, if the poem on the whole is a bit overwrought--a word that comes to mind for Crane's oeuvre in general. Hoever, I can't deny that I find lines from that poem wholly memorable and moving: "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." Crane (especially early Crane) is very French very often--bad French more often than good French. If he had gone to the prose poetry form he might have really exploded...if he had cast off the shackles of the metered line, since his skills are amazingly forgetive. Iambic pentameter is heroin to Crane, however, and it's what makes his vision so pale and sweaty...the clinging to verse tradition is what's disgusting...like a French whore cuddling a poodle to prove she's wellbred... As a side note, check out Creeley's poem on Hart Crane (one of his very earliest poems, I believe). It's very good.... Most of this poetry is ruined by the obsessively-manicured line. He seems to think even enjambment a weakness. He writes these masonry-like lines that just irk me to no fucking end, and now I realize how much White Buildings is a young man's book. It has all the excesses: sentiment going over to sentimentality, abuse of mythological images, abuse of religious images and archetypes, bombast going over to meaninglessness all the time...the only poems which seem to hold some true poetry and not spoil their own effects are the final poems, "At Melville's Tomb," and the multipartite "Voyages." All Crane's best poems are about the sea. Ironic, huh? Maybe it's just an inbred hatred of verse on my part....which is what White Buildings is. It's all these versicles hanging like icicles flashing little bits of sun. And you can sense the pernicious influence of awful French writers like oh say, Henri Regnier....poets who were were A-list or B-list during their lifetime who now will forever look upwards to a rapidly vanishing D-list. I'm speaking of poems in White Buildings that feature manicured French gardens, parasols, fountains--the poetically decorative. The poem for his grandmother and the poem for a painter he admires are weak poems where one senses he was trying to write for a larger audience. This explains why so many of his poems were so appreciated in their time. There was a great love of florid, anemic love ballads after the
French and poems groomed like topiary in the magazines of the day. Okay, I still like portions of The Bridge. Probably because he stops writing verse and actually begins writing poetry. There he sort of opens up the field of the language some, and he is actually seeing the city and the country and the horrible ideology of America and embracing the freedom that is allowable within this superstructure...usually a freedom associated with violence...like war...or madness. I shouldn't blame it all on verse, as poets like Stevens or Marianne Moore were able to be prosodic geniuses and still make their language both timely and timeless. Many other Modernists did too of course. But Hart Crane died a young man. He obviously had a lot of developing to do, much invention in him. He seemed able to appreciate some forward-thinkers in the little of his criticism we have....but he also hearkened back to poets like Swinburne...one senses he knew how fey some of the poetry he admired (and that influenced him) really was, but he couldn't really get past the cachet it held for him. His work is very much in love with literary romanticism. He was critically punished for his best work, The Bridge...and that's probably what broke his spirit. from "Cape Hatteras" in The Bridge.... Regard the moving turrets! From grey decks See scouting griffins rise through gaseous crepe Hung low...until a conch of thunder answers Cloud-belfries, banging, while searchlights, like fencers, Slit the sky's pancreas of foaming anthracite Toward thee, O Corsair of the typhoon,--pilot, hear! Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see How from thy path above the levin's lance Thous sowest doom thou hast nor time nor chance To reckon--as thy stilly eyes partake What alcohol of space...! The imaginative language of the Bridge is often filled with these poetic apostrophes (these "thee"s and "thou"s) which really impact negatively on the work's reception...all that staginess, the self-consciousness of poetry as a stage. He was very conscious of writing a "monumental" work and that isn't always good. And I believe words exclusive to poetic diction like "levin" (Poe liked this word for a lightning bolt too) grate the ear when heard against the sort of forgetive skill which characterizes his best lines. These affectations tarnish otherwise fine lines everywhere. Compare how dated most of Crane is to one of his mentors who came quite some time before him: Walt Whitman. Much of Whitman seems much less dated...many more of Whitman's pages possess the twin virtues of timeliness and timelessness. Of course, Whitman just took free verse for granted, which I think gave him more free play from the start. Crane's work (think of his oft-anthologized imagistic "North Labrador" from WB) is often just perfectly timely, and not much else. Poems like "North Labrador" have not aged well at all. Again, it's the mannerisms and affectations of the debut-de-siecle, heavy albatrosses, which sink the poem. If you think about it, some literary devices--like apostrophe, addressing unliving phenomena or abstract qualities--(as Hart addresses the landscape in "North Labrador") have almost come to seem insurmountably silly to the modern reader or listener. Literary apostrophe is an example of a device comedians instantly seize
upon to lampoon poets: "O Coffee Pot, shining resplendent upon yon kitchen island..." It's hard to imagine any poet pulling off literary apostrophe today, unless we're talking humorous poetry. Okay, enough necrovilification. He's an interesting transition figure. His influence would be most important not because he made formal prosodic or conceptual innovations--that was left to poets like William Carlos Williams. And these innovations were mostly innovations of subtraction or negation in the early 20th century...the free verse revolution, investigations of non-denotative, nonreferential modalities in language, or the introduction of chance elements to name a few. Think of what Stein was writing at the same time as Crane, or other more forward-looking poets. When measured against giants, Crane seems almost a literary eccentric. But perhaps this is being too cruel, to measure his work against the titans of Modernism. Crane's contribution lay in using language in proscribed ways...virtually making catachresis his hallmark. His excesses were dizzyingly imaginative in this regard (see above the line "Slit the sky's pancreas of foaming anthracite."). He was inching his way towards surrealism but would be dead before that movement really grew legs. Dada had certainly made its mark, but one senses Hart Crane was just a bit too well brought-up for that. Which is a pity, but it made its strong impact on poets who were going to be much more important in the long run, many of the major Modernists. He wrote his own epitaph in "At Melville's Tomb." The last line reads, "This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps." And language does too.... The man drowned himself in the wrong sea. He had so much more freedom to explore. This piece originally appeared on my blog Joe Brainard's Pyjamas. Feel free to come visit and stay awhile! I put yr jammies out on the bed. Feel free to reproduce this or any of my writings/visual art as long as you credit me and/or my blog and as long as you aren't making any money off me, you scalawag! :-)
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