Hart Crane: A visionary poet and “a nephew to confusions”

Hart Crane’s tombstone bares a succinct epitaph, which reads: “Lost at sea.” This is both true in a figurative and literal sense, as most of his life Crane felt at odds with the world; and on 27th April 1932, aged 32, while on-board the steamship SS Orizaba heading back to New York from Veracruz, Crane jumped overboard into the glacious Gulf of Mexico waters.  His body – never recovered – rests somewhere in the bathypelagic depths of the ocean, his marble headstone in his native Garrettsville, Ohio. Crane left behind a slender oeuvre and a miscellany of uncollected essays, verses, reviews and translations. His first poetic offering, White Buildings (1926), was received with genuflections from both his friends and some of the most notable cultural arbiters of 1920s America, including Waldo Frank, Malcolm Cowley, Yvor Winters and Allen Tate. Crane’s premature death has made his legacy into a romantic apologue, disregarding the grody and macabre details of his life. In truth, Crane was chronically manic, creatively congested, often stupendously drunk, prone to episodes of bellicose frenzy and deeply troubled by his homosexuality. He spent his life scrambling for money and love, the latter mostly in cheap one night hotels with brutish sailors and stevedores. He drank in Village speakeasies and Brooklyn waterfront dives to ameliorate the guilt of his sexual misadventures. And sometimes, in between “rings of tumult” and the “immaculate sigh of stars” he wrote poetry. In time, however, his writing became secondary to the protracted, yet unrelenting, process of self-annihilation.

Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21st 1899 to an affluent Cleveland sweets manufacturer. He dropped out of school in his teens and cajoled his parents into sending him to New York, where he hoped to make it as a writer. Ambitious to unsurpassable degree, aged 17 Crane assuredly declared that he would “be one of the foremost poets in America”. Described by his friend Edward Dahlberg as a stocky, virile male with a Jovean square face, mizzling, foggy eyes, gun-metal grey hair and a smouldering, amorous mouth,” Crane soon made an impression on the New York literary set and  was published in some of the leading underground journals of the day.  I first discovered Crane through Robert Lowell who proclaimed him to be the “best writer of his generation”. Intrigued by Lowell’s veneration I picked up a copy of Crane’s Complete Poems & Selected Letters & Prose in a small indie bookshop. The hardback edition comprises most of the poet’s output, including his thoughts on Modern Poetry and the role of the poet, which he says “must be, as always, self-discipline towards a formal integration of experience.” By this virtue, a great deal of Crane’s work is therefore intelligible only to Crane himself. But reading his verses I remembered something T.S. Eliot once said, namely that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author”.  This interpretative framework has always, if sometimes unwittingly, shaped my relationship with poetry but never more so when reading Crane.

After the publication of White Buildings, Crane began work on his second collection, The Bridge (1930), inspired by the famous Brooklyn monument which he saw every day from his boarding-house window. He laboured on the poems for the next several years, sustaining himself on occasional goodwill of eleemosynary acquaintances. Yet, beleaguered by chronic paucity and the inability to bring the collection to a close Crane left for Paris. His stint in the French capital was cut short after he got himself into a bar brawl and thus had to return to New York. There he eventually finished the collection, which pays homage to the modern city through inspired evocations of tyrannically imposing structures and the onset of industrialisation. The last poem in the collection called Atlantis epitomises the overall feel of The Bridge, particularly in the fourth stanza when Crane says: “Sheerly the eyes, like seagulls stung with rime—/Slit and propelled by glistening fins of light—/Pick biting way up towering looms that press /Sidelong with flight of blade on tendon blade/—Tomorrows into yesteryear—and link/What cipher-script of time no traveller reads/But who, through smoking pyres of love and death/Searches the timeless laugh of mythic spears.” The reception of the book – which shows influence from various poets such as Eliot, Walt Whitman and Percy Bysshe Shelley – was an encouraging and momentous one, as many praised its prosperous marrying of both 19th and 20th century poetic tradition. Unfortunately, by this time Crane’s “bright logic” and creative prowess was waning. His erratic behaviour, unremitting need for attention and money repelled many of those who had uncompromisingly stood by him. And yet, despite the odds Crane managed to earn himself a name among his contemporaries as a visionary poet of the Machine Age, who sought to discover a “complete synthesis of human values” in new forms.

Contrary to critical opinion, some of my favourite Crane poems are those written early on in his career. One such example is Exile, where the poet laments a separation saying: “My hands have not touched pleasure since your hands, –/No, — nor my lips freed laughter since ‘farewell’/And with the day, distance again expands/Voiceless between us, as an uncoiled shell.” Another is Voyages, from his first collection, which already shows Crane’s knack for externalising the emotional and combining the modern with the archaic (Take this Sea, whose diapason knells/On scrolls of silver snowy sentences/The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends/As her demeanours motion well or ill/All but the pieties of lovers’ hands), and Carmen de Boheme , which is beautifully observational especially in the following lines: “Sinuously winding through the room/On smokey tongues of sweetened cigarettes/Plaintive yet proud the cello tones resume/The andante of smooth hopes and lost regrets /Bright peacocks drink from flame-pots by the wall/Just as absinthe-sipping women shiver through/With shimmering blue from the bowl in Circe’s hall/Their brown eyes blacken, and the blue drop hue.” While Interior is simple yet striking (“Wide from the world, a stolen hour/We claim, and none may know/How love blooms like a tardy flower/Here in the day’s after-glow”) as is Postscript (“Though now but marble are the marble urns/Though fountains droop in waning light and pain/Glitters on the edges of wet ferns/I should not dare to let you in again/Mine is a world foregone though not yet ended -/An imagined garden grey with sundered boughs/And broken branches, wistful and unmended/And mist that is more constant than your vows”). The book, containing all of Cranes’ verses, charts his creative development offering the reader a chance to fully appreciate Crane’s evolving futuristic lyricism segueing into robust iconographic images of urban modernity.

A lot of Crane’s strengths lie in his prescience and wild-eyed prophesying about mankind’s progress. His weaknesses stem from these same strengths, which at times seem out-dated. A general overview of the poet’s troubled existence and his work seems to suggest that he was lost at sea in life as well as in death. And yet, Crane managed to leave an infinitesimal, but important, mark as someone who was a visionary and as he himself once said nephew to confusions” both in regard to his personal life and his overall artistic vision. The latter made clear in Crane’s essays and reviews gathered in the book. In one particular instance, writing of fellow poet Maxwell Bodenheim and his collection of poetry, Minna and Myself, Crane notes: “I think that many of these poems will endure though they will probably not be widely popular for the principal reason that they are too distinguished - too peculiar.” A fair and accurate estimation and one which coincidentally also applies to Crane himself.