Once Hart Crane had been a young man hanging around the office of the Little Review and getting in the way. He was the teenage son of a recently broken home, whose father was a chocolate manufacturer in Ohio. Soon he became intolerable—not, as in his lonely youth, because of his insatiable thirst for conversation, but because of his thirst. Drink made him aggressive. He wanted a fight. He wanted a fight because he wanted to be humiliated. The humiliations piled up. He sought more of them. People told him in quite plain language how intolerable he had become. Katherine Anne Porter, with whom he stayed for a while in Mexico in 1931 (they were both Guggenheim Fellows at the time), wrote to him after one incident:
I have lived in Greenwich Village also, as you know, but I was never involved there in such a meaningless stupid situation as this…. You must either learn to stand on your own feet as a responsible adult, or expect to be treated as a fool. Your emotional hysteria is not impressive, except possibly to those little hangers-on of literature who feel your tantrums are a mark of genius. To me they do not add the least value to your poetry, and take away my last shadow of a wish to ever see you again.
Within a week, a letter was sent from Henry Allen Moe on behalf of the Guggenheim Foundation, which had awarded him a grant around the time of publication of The Bridge in 1930. Its language was just as plain. The foundation was not in the habit of telling its fellows to drink less or to get on with their work. But Hart Crane was the first Guggenheim Fellow to raise hell and get thrown in jail for it. He was in danger of creating a diplomatic incident, of getting bullet holes in his hide. He must stay sober, keep out of jail, and get to work. The letter continues:
There’s no use in getting mad at this letter; protests have been made in several governmental channels and I cannot ignore them, which I have no desire to do anyway. So I put my cards on the table and tell you that you are making yourself liable to deportation; and, if that happens, your support from the Foundation must cease. I am far from saying that that is the only incident that would terminate the Fellowship either.
So that’s that, and that’s flat. The Fourth of July is coming; and that will make a grand occasion for you to go on a final bust or quit making a nuisance and a fool of yourself and the Foundation. Take your choice and go to it.
Excerpted like this in the admirable new Selected Letters of Hart Crane, Moe’s reprimand seems startlingly frank and abrupt, almost like a challenge to suicide. In fact it ended on a friendlier note: “But I hardly need to tell you that I should hate to miss the product we bet on you to do.” Moe, as we learn from John Unterecker’s biography of Crane, had been led by his wartime experiences to believe that it didn’t matter what you said to a drunk, but it did matter a great deal how and when you said it, and who said it.* He had been a neighbor of Crane’s, and he thought that the poet would hardly like to go back home to Ohio and admit that his fellowship had been terminated for drunkenness. It was this fear of humiliation back home that Moe thought was the lever he had under Crane, and he seems to have been both right and wrong. Crane apologized, en route to his family’s house in Chagrin Falls, in the most humiliating circumstances:
Dear Mr. Moe:
Due to my Father’s sudden death two days ago I cannot yet answer your recent notice beyond expressing my sincere regret that you felt so wholesale a condemnation was necessary. On my return to Mexico (if I go through New York) it may be possible to have a talk with you—when some rather gross misunderstandings can be explained.
He had always been prepared to apologize (it is one of the admirable features of the earlier letters) but this idea that there were “gross misunderstandings” about his behavior was pure self-deception. There were no misunderstandings at all. He couldn’t remember (as he candidly admitted) half of what he did in his drunkenness. Deciding, on a tequila high, to drop in on Miss Porter, he, “with elaborate pantomime, and shushing for silence,” climbed onto his own roof and leapt from roof to roof until he came to hers. (She locked herself in the bathroom.) He would, she tells us, “weep and shout, shaking his fist, ‘I am Baudelaire, I am Whitman, I am Christopher Marlowe, I am Christ.”‘ And at a certain point of drunkenness, all he could do was curse. His biographer quotes Miss Porter:
His voice at these times was intolerable: a steady, harsh inhuman bellow which stunned the ears and shocked the nerves and caused the heart to contract. In this voice and with words so foul there is no question of repeating them, he cursed separately and by name the moon, and its light: the heliotrope, the heaven-tree, the sweet-by-night, the star jessamine, and their perfumes. He cursed the air we breathed together, the pool of water with its two small ducks huddled at the edge, and the vines on the wall and the house. But those were not the things he hated. He did not even hate us, for we were nothing to him. He hated and feared himself.
He had his portrait painted by David Siqueiros—but then he destroyed it with a razor. Great things had been expected of him, but he set about confounding his own aspirations. Almost his last words to Peggy Cowley, who expected to marry him, were: “I’m not going to make it, dear. I’m utterly disgraced.” Then, aged thirty-three, he went up on deck and finally succeeded in jumping into the sea.
“I am Baudelaire, I am Whitman…” No poet, no artist, will get very far without ambitions of that kind, ambitions which, if ever confessed to, are bound to seem exorbitant or absurd. No poet either can be immune to considerations of a baser kind—How am I doing?What is my standing? Am I well thought of? The important thing is that none of this finds its way into the poetry itself. The hand that holds the pen or taps the keys must be possessed of a perfect indifference, like the hand of the pianist, in which the fingers work like hammers, but the wrist is entirely relaxed. However frantic the poet may be, the poem itself must be unfrantic. However much the poet may be striving for greatness, none of that striving should show up in the work of art.
To take the example which most exercised Crane and his contemporaries, The Waste Land. It is quite clear from its manuscript history that Eliot did not really know what he was doing when he wrote it, and that he was happy, where he did have some sort of scheme in mind, to jettison great chunks of it. This quality of not knowing, this instinctive composition, accounts for much of the poem’s initial mystery and attraction. Crane was fascinated, and envious. He saw the poem’s success as a rebuke to his fledgling genius. He would answer The Waste Land with a great poem—The Bridge. Where Eliot’s work seemed negative and European, Crane’s would be positive and American. Time and time again in the letters a mention of his own poem prompts a thought about Eliot’s—a hostile or rivalrous thought.
But Crane put himself at an immediate disadvantage to Eliot. If Eliot didn’t know what he was doing, he certainly wasn’t setting out to write the Great Poem. Nothing about The Waste Land (the notes were an afterthought) nudges the reader or signals him to expect greatness. Everything about The Bridge is spelled out in frantic semaphore, from the choice of a very large symbol indeed, to the appearance of the Statue of Liberty in the fourth line, to the archaism and the bombast of the language.
Crane loved Elizabethan bombast. That is one reason why when drunk he claimed to be Christopher Marlowe, and why he chose this passage from Ben Jonson as epigraph to “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:
And so we may arrive by Talmud skill
And profane Greek to raise the building up
Of Helen’s house against the Ismaelite,
King of Thogarma and his habergeons
Brimstony, blue and fiery; and the force
Of King Abaddon, and the beast of Cittim;
Which Rabbi David Kimchi, Onkelos,
And Aben Ezra do interpret Rome.
This is spoken by Dol Common in a fit of raving—and is indeed splendid nonsense. Crane would make it the basis of his poetic. He loved elevation in language, gorgeousness in vocabulary, and he rated sonority above sense.
The editorial decision to print the Selected Letters with all errors unchanged reminds us continually that Crane couldn’t spell very well (he was about as bad as Hemingway), which in turn reminds us that he wasn’t very well educated either. This shouldn’t matter too much in a poet, but it matters a great deal if the poet intends to court comparison with Eliot. It matters too if we begin to wonder at times whether the poet is in command of grammar, scansion, even the meaning of the words he uses or invents:
Swift peal of secular light, intrinsic Myth
Whose fell unshadow is death’s utter wound,—
Does he want us to smile at the word “unshadow”? No, no—the last thing he wants is for us to smile. This is from “Atlantis,” the final section of his masterpiece, and one must not smile when there is so much sublimity going on:
Like hails, farewells—up planet-sequinned heights
Some trillion whispering hammers glimmer Tyre:
Serenely, sharply up the long anvil cry
Of inchling aeons silence rivets Troy.
And you, aloft there—Jason! hesting Shout!
Is it to be understood that there are a trillion whispering hammers, and that they contrive transitively to glimmer Tyre? Or is there some trillion whispering which hammers glimmer Tyre? Or both?And does it matter?
It seems that it doesn’t matter. This is vatic. It is ecstatic. The minor grammatical ambiguities which hold the reader up are simply the inevitable consequence of the agglomerative style. The thing to do is to press on and not worry excessively. That, at any rate, is the impression I receive from the poems alone. Once that impression has been established, the bid for greatness founders.
Reading the letters, on the other hand, one becomes aware that there was more going on in the mind of the poet than the poems themselves let on. Crane’s letters suddenly become particularly interesting around 1926. In one, for instance, to Gorham Munson, dated March 17 of that year, Crane set out to defend the independence of poetry from logic and science:
When you ask for exact factual data (a graphic map of eternity?), ethical morality or moral classifications, etc., from poetry—you not only limit its goal, you ask its subordination to science, philosophy. Is it not equally logical to expect Stravinsky to bring his fiddles into dissent with the gravitation theories of Sir Isaac Newton?
At this point Crane’s pen has run away with him, and he realizes it, because the passage continues:
They are in dissent with this scientist, as a matter of fact, and organically so; for the group mind that Stravinsky appeals to has already been freed from certain of the limitations of experience and consciousness that dominated both the time and the mind of Newton. Science (ergo all exact knowledge and its instruments of operation) is in perfect antithesis to poetry.
And he goes on to draw a distinction between being antithetical and being inimical. Poetry is antithetical to science, not inimical. In fact he can’t quite make up his mind whether art dissents from the truths of science, or is inimical to them, or simply at a different pole from them. But it is interesting to watch the argument as it bumps along.
It is a prelude to an exchange, in October of the same year, with Harriet Monroe. Crane had written a poem, “At Melville’s Tomb,” of which the first two stanzas read:
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.
It was Crane’s fate to be published by two remarkable women with whom he had little sympathy:Marianne Moore at The Dial (who took one of his poems and completely rewrote it and retitled it, at a time when he needed the money and couldn’t object) and Harriet Monroe at Poetry, who commented on “At Melville’s Tomb”:
Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else).
And so on. I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, Ibelieve.
Crane’s celebrated reply, published in Poetry, is both a defense of the illogicality of poetry and an expounding of the concentrated reasoning behind his imagery. For instance, defending the “calyx of death’s bounty,” he says:
This calyx refers in a double ironic sense both to a cornucopia and the vortex made by a sinking vessel. As soon as the water has closed over a ship this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter so far as any complete record of the recent ship and her crew is concerned.
One might surely say that the reply, though impressive, reveals something wrong with the poem: if he had intended the calyx to be both cornucopia and whirlpool, he might have done something to let us in on the secret. The defense of the later lines “Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive/No farther tides” is most ingenious. He asks:
Hasn’t it often occurred that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the boundaries of the entity measured?
This is surely true—that one starts out surveying land and ends up with trigonometry, or starts out with a counting machine and ends up with the computer age.
Monroe printed her own last words on the subject, below Crane’s letter, and very rude she is: “Your poem reeks with brains—it is thought out, worked out, sweated out. And the beauty which it seems entitled to is tortured and lost.” But she adds:
In all this Imay be entirely wrong, and I am aware that a number of poets and critics would think so. Yvor Winters, for example, in a recent letter, speaks of your “Marriage of Faustus and Helen” in Secession 7 as “one of the great poems of our time, as great as the best of Stevens or Pound or Eliot.” Well, I cannot grant it such a rank.
When Crane writes in 1924 that he has already been recognized “with the applause of the most discriminating,” one can see what he means. The poems in White Buildings, his first collection, moved Edmund Wilson to write a teasing half-tribute: “Mr. Crane has a most remarkable style, a style that is strikingly original—almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was, not merely not applied to a great subject, but not, so far as one can see, applied to any subject at all.” After a lethal comparison with “the poet Chivers, from whom Poe borrowed his later style,” Wilson nevertheless concludes:
His poetry is a disponible, as they say about French troops. We are eagerly waiting to see to which part of the front he will move it: just at present, it is killing time in the cafés behind the lines.
This provoked in Crane a bitter response in a letter to Winters (May 29, 1927), perhaps the first touch of bitterness in the Selected Letters, that it was all very well for Wilson, “born into easy means,” but the circumstances of his birth and the conduct of his parents, he implies, had made it impossible for him to find a decent job. The response, however, is irrelevant to Wilson’s attack. It just seems that that bitterness was there, waiting to pour out, when an attack came from too refined a source. Winters himself did an unpleasant thing to Crane, which was that he led him to believe that he had a high opinion of his poetry, but on publication he attacked The Bridge in print whereas Crane seems to have expected praise. No writer of comparable ability, Winters argued, had struggled with Whitman’s inspiration before, “and, with Mr. Crane’s wreckage in view, it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable ability will struggle with it again.” But this judgment is wrong. It is not Whitman who wrecks The Bridge. It is Crane cutting corners in the pursuit of greatness. There is no comfort at all to be gained from the story these letters tell, and there is nobody to blame. “One may be doomed,” Crane wrote, “to the kind of half-success which is worse than failure.” And he set about securing the kind of half-success he most dreaded.
October 23, 1997