HART CRANE: COMPLETE POEMS AND SELECTED LETTERS
Edited by Langdon Hammer
The Library of America, $40,
REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN
By now it seems beyond question that Hart Crane is one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. Greater than Wallace Stevens perhaps, because less inclined to syllogism and more inclined to gush forth in torrents of splendor both auditory and visual.
And perhaps also greater than Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, because of his determination to pursue the visionary quest: the search for meaning, wholeness and something beyond the limits of ordinary understanding which was championed by the High Romantics of the previous century.
Like Shelley and Keats before him, Crane was doomed to a tragically early death. Keats’ life, cut short by tuberculosis, was the briefest, yet his story, though the saddest, provides the most satisfying material for biographers, because of the quietly heroic, intelligent way in which he dealt with difficult, often desperate circumstances — poverty, obscurity and worsening illness.
Crane reminds one more of Shelley. Both died at sea, Shelley in a boating accident that some, but not all, of his biographers think was suicidal; Crane, by jumping off the back of a ship.
Reading about either man’s hectic, disorganized life (in Shelley’s case, too many women, not enough money; in Crane’s, too many men, not enough money and too much booze) can distract us from paying attention to the solid and sustained achievement of their oeuvres: not only their poetry — inspired, vatic, visionary, as well as technically brilliant — but also their surprisingly discerning prose.
Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” and other essays reveal a penetrating, original and erudite mind. Crane’s body of prose, if not as impressive as Shelley’s, also demonstrates how highly intelligent and independent-minded he was: how passionately he cared about literature, and how deeply he thought about it.
Crane’s brief life — he was born in 1899 and made his suicidal leap in 1932 — coincided with the exciting, dynamic, yet in many ways daunting first third of the 20th century, an era characterized by rapid industrialization, urbanization and the emerging aesthetic creed of Modernism.
Although his life was a struggle, his efforts as a poet did not go entirely unrecognized. From his teenage years on, many of his poems were published in magazines; he had artistic and literary friends and allies, not to mention a certain amount of financial support from patrons like the banker Otto Kahn and foundations like the Guggenheim.
But from boyhood on, Crane was also the victim of his parents’ bad marriage, a depressing, seemingly unending soap opera of fierce battles and separations, equally wild and precipitate reconciliations, and constant recriminations, leaving their son (in the words of his poem “Quaker Hill”) to “shoulder the curse of sundered parentage.” Although for much of his life a strong partisan of his mother, the poet later came to perceive her serious flaws and sympathize somewhat more with the father he had formerly looked upon as the enemy.
The new Library of America edition of his work, edited by Langdon Hammer, which bears the title “Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters,” also contains about a dozen essays, articles and reviews he wrote in addition to the poems and letters.
Somewhat similar in content to Brom Weber’s 1966 edition, “The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane,” Mr. Hammer’s edition contains only a few more minor poems and fragments but many more letters.
Insofar as an even larger selection of letters can be found in “O My Land, My Friends,” a selection from Crane’s correspondence co-edited by Weber and Mr. Hammer, one cannot solemnly pronounce this new edition of the poet’s work as “indispensable,” but it is certainly a handsome and welcome addition, complete with a detailed chronology of Crane’s life, a list of his family, friends and acquaintances and a useful index.
The generous selection of letters gives us a wonderful sense of Crane’s immensely engaging, almost ingenuous personality: his love of literature, his passion to create it, his emotional warmth and intensity, his longing for love and friendship, his quick temper and his unusual combination of intellectual acumen, bold thinking and modesty.
In 1918, still in his teens, Crane defends Nietzsche against accusations springing up in the wake of World War I that he was an advocate of “Prussian” nationalism and militarism:
“How paradoxical their accusation seems, when we know that Nietzsche was drawn to the French temperament more than to any other … Goethe and Schopenhauer were the only Germans for whom he had philosophic ears; and these, as he declares, were fundamentally un-German … [H]ow can he be called the spokesman of a nation which always affected him with disgust … His epithets on characteristic ‘Germania’ at times approach the unprintable.”
Crane’s prose reveals him as a voracious and perceptive reader with wide-ranging tastes that included Sherwood Anderson’s realistic portraits of small-town American life and James Joyce’s brilliantly innovative “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”
Among poets past, he admits to a distaste for “Tennyson, Thompson, Byron, Moore, [and] Milton,” but runs “joyfully towards Messrs. Poe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, John Donne!!!, John Webster!!!, Marlowe, Baudelaire, Laforgue, Dante, Cavalcanti, Li Po, and a host of others.”
Intrigued by Modernism and other new movements, Crane nonetheless disapproved of their self-conscious, self-aggrandizing insistence on the necessity of spurning the past and embracing only what was new.
“The deliberate program, then, of a ‘break’ with the past or tradition seems to me to be a sentimental fallacy,” he declares in his essay “General Aims and Theories,” cleverly throwing back at them the Modernists’ charge that traditional poetry is too sentimental. “The poet has the right to draw on whatever practical resources he finds in books or otherwise about him.”
Crane was quick to recognize the power and technical skills of his Anglophilic near-contemporary T.S. Eliot, but found himself at odds with Eliot’s clearly stated cultural pessimism. The modern world, for all its alienating aspects, was not a wasteland.
Despite Crane’s “genuine and deep admiration for Mr. Eliot’s work,” as he explains in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, the goal of his own poem “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” is to “erect an almost antithetical spiritual attitude to the pessimism of The Waste Land … It has been my conviction … that ecstasy and beauty are as possible to the active imagination now as ever. (What did Blake have from the ‘outside’ to excite him?)”
Indeed, even more than Crane’s jazz-age take on Faustus and Helen, his greatest poems are proof positive that he was able to achieve what he set out to do, whether meditating “At Melville’s Tomb”:
“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.”
Or recovering after a night of drunkenness beneath the bell tower of a ruined cathedral in Mexico and finding a way to enter “the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love…” (from “The Broken Tower”)
Or praying for the spirit of inspiration to descend on him in “Voyages”:
“Waiting, afire, what name, unspoke, / I cannot claim: let thy waves rear / More savage than the death of kings, / Some splintered garland for the seer.”
Or transforming Brooklyn Bridge into a symbolic link between ordinary daily life and the timeless world of vision:
“Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift / Unfractured idiom, immaculate sigh of stars, / Beading thy path — condense eternity: / And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.” (from “To Brooklyn Bridge”)
In these and other precious moments of vision, transformed with immense diligence and artistry into magnificent and memorable poetry, Crane takes his place among that company of visionary poets and artists he so longed to join.
Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.