POETS Day! A Few from Hart Crane
I have COVID again. This is the third year this has happened. By now I should be like James Matthew Wilson’s ill in “On Being Ill”, “marking down its savor / With such alacrity for shades of difference / That no one else can see or listen to.” This is the first time I’ve had symptoms though, so other than a binary, I have no comparisons between variants.
The thing is, I’m not certain all my symptoms are from COVID. In 2022 I tested positive at least eight times between early July and late September. I tested the first time because someone near me was sick. Once the prescribed avoidance ran its course I tested again as part of a doctor’s office access regimen. Three positive tests within two weeks after that, it became a parlor game. Two doctors had since told me to ignore the tests and declared me interactable. Throughout, I never had so much as a sniffle.
But sniffles still exist. I mean independent sniffles. Sore throats without pedigrees. They exist too. Non-COVID coughs and fevers, achy joints, and headaches from the ether were commonplace before most had heard of Wuhan. This time I tested because I thought our rosemary plant was defective. This was on top of a cough and a sore throat. The loss of smell isn’t complete. It’s like my range is narrowed. I can smell the humdrum, but if something carries a strong odor, say a sprig of rosemary, it’s gone. It’s not faint. It doesn’t exist for me.
POETS Day isn’t as exciting when you’re sick. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday for thee, but not for me. There’s nothing transgressive about following medical guidelines, no matter how capricious. Killjoys told us masturbation was natural, normal, and healthy. The Kinsey Report robbed people of delicious and discrete kinks by turning them into statistical norms overnight. Missing work is still okay, but it’s better when you’re getting away with something.
So do the POETS Day Piss Off thing. Skip out of work early and enjoy your day while I’m stuck at home with a sack full of Halls because apparently Ludens are a boutique item not found in normal pharmacies anymore. Have your fun. Watch some baseball. Flirt with someone promising. But set aside a moment for a little verse. That’s what I’ve been doing – the last bit I mean.
But other than the smell thing, I could have a-symptomatic COVID and a non-politically useful sore throat and cough at the same time. An illness can’t call dibs, right?
In “The Last Elizabethan: Hart Crane at 100” in The New Criterion, February 2001 issue, Eric Ormsby wrote, “For a long time now, the enshrinement of the quotidian has dislodged the visionary, the noble and the sublime; indeed, the latter are seen as laughable if not downright fraudulent.” Crane’s verbosity is outré, the simple language of the common man is in. In case you missed his disdain, he follows with, “the ecstatic buccaneer has been elbowed aside by the vandal in muddy galoshes.”
I’ve written about Crane on these electronic pages before and then noted that he’s a difficult poet. His metaphors are very experience specific, sometimes too personal to make broad sense, and often requiring multiple readings. I’ve read that re-reading and breaking down his images is worth the extra work, but it isn’t, work that is.
Crane, for me at least and I’m a bit slow on various uptakes, requires a different mindset. I like spending a few hours with a single collection of poetry. Most that I tend to read in a sitting are around Ariel or Imagiste length, thirty to eighty pages with twenty to forty poems. It’s a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. With Crane and some others, I’ll spend the same few hours but sometimes – and I should point out that not all his poems are as dense as his reputation would have you believe they are – read half as much. It’s not hard or work. It can be more time consuming but fantastic. I guess I just don’t like the label “difficult” that he’s picked up, even though I’ve used it (just did) and will probably use it again, because people shy away from difficult poets. I’m going to make an effort to call him an economical poet. You get more poetic enjoyment time for your money with Crane.
A quick favorite, and not just because I see a fellow semicolon, dash, and ellipsis abuser practicing his craft with abandon:
Two ivory women by a milky sea; –
The dawn, a shell’s pale lining restlessly
Shimmering over a black mountain-spear; –
A dreamer might see these, and wake to hear,
But there is no sound, – not even a bird-note;
Only simple ripples flaunt, and stroke, and float, –
Flat lily petals to the sea’s white throat.
They say that Venus shot through foam to light,
But they are wrong…. Ere man was given sight
She came in such still water, and so nursed
In silence, beauty blessed and beauty cursed.
Crane doesn’t always deliver. No one does. I’ve been writing this column for two years now and one of the unexpected delights has been reading considered criticism when looking into the poets I feature. I’ve become appreciative of the genre and have a handful of favorite poet/critics. William Logan is among the handful. I don’t always agree with him but he clear, informed, and biting. He reviewed Crane’s Complete Poems and Selected Letters for the New York Times Book Review. I can’t get past the paywall (those things are usually archived) but the Book Review received an awful lot of mail upset that the review wasn’t a hagiography.
They printed a few of the letters by Crane biographers and fellow poets and critics, so Logan took to the magazine, Poetry (not behind a paywall), to respond in an article titled “The Hart Crane Controversy.” He wrote:
“I’ve always loved Hart Crane; but I love him in fractions, delighting in half a dozen of those rhapsodic poems long on style and short on sense but finding the rest mystifying as a Masonic ritual.”
Sometimes the best make missteps. Maybe the poet tries too hard. Maybe they experiment. Maybe they believe their own press. Crane was an alcoholic narcissist, so maybe he was more open to occasional error than most. Logan, in responding to a letter printed in the Book Review by the poet Daniel Halpern, highlights a particularly egregious example of one of Crane’s missteps. The quote makes me giggle.
“Halpern also reproached me for “disingenuously ignoring the memorable ending” of Crane’s hapless little poem “Chaplinesque”:
but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
A grail of laughter? A kitten in the wilderness? I failed to quote these lines because they’re embarrassing—I don’t see why they don’t seem embarrassing to Halpern.”
The Bridge is his great work, written in reaction to The Waste Land, of which he wasn’t a fan. He saw Eliot’s work as what Eric Ormsby would later call “enshrinement of the quotidian.” The Bridge was his hoped for connection to the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, whose work he saw his own as a continuation of. It was a patchwork of American stories starting with Columbus and meant to connect the past with the modern.
It has tremendous heights. From the introductory poem, “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge”:
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
– Till elevators drop us from our day…
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;
I could do without the word “Proem” in the title of that one, but The Bridge is a pivotal sequence deserving of it’s own post. I intend to give it one, but first I need to give The Waste Land a post and before I do that I need to do Prufrock. It’s on my list.
Though well regarded now, The Bridge was not a critical success in Crane’s lifetime. Yvor Winter disparaged it. The only time I’d come across Winter on Crane otherwise was in an archived Poetry from April, 1927 where he wrote, “I have been watching Mr. Crane’s progress for about eight years with mingled feelings of admiration, bewilderment, and jealousy.” Consensus seems to be that Crane’s aims were too ambitious rather than that his prosody was lacking.
He was ambitious.
To Emily Dickinson
You who desired so much – in vain to ask –
Yet fed your hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest –
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,
Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momentarily momently in every breast;
– Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind –
Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill.
Crane didn’t live a happy life. As I mentioned, he was an alcoholic and had an inflated sense of himself. He was determined to bring homoeroticism to poetry as he felt that not doing so completely was a failing of Whitman. There are images, but his poems that deal in love of sex rarely focus on individuals. He writes about heterosexual relationships too, but in no case I can think of would the sex of those involved matter.
It couldn’t have been easy wanting to be openly gay poetically at a time when being openly gay in any fashion wasn’t acceptable. There’s a recurring sequence in stories about Crane. He’d get drunk and hit on a sailor who would either reciprocate or beat him up. Roy Cambell wrote about sailors thrashing him when Crane visited in France. He considered Emil Opffer, a Danish sailor, the love of his life. He leapt overboard to his death at 32 after being rebuked and probably punched by a Mexican crewman he approached aboard the USS Orizaba. Did he keep revealing himself so dangerously because he saw some parallel to revealing himself to the world? He’d get ginned up and face physical danger in a way he couldn’t face social danger? I’m going to take my armchair shrink hat off.
This last poem is considered one of his greatest achievements. I read it a few times this week. I read a lot of his stuff a few times this week. I particularly like “rippled them / Asunder…”
Repose of Rivers
Hart Crane (1899-1932)
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.
Flags, weeds. And remembrance of steep alcoves
Where cypress shared the noon’s
Tyranny; they drew me into hades almost.
And mammoth turtles climbing sulphur dreams
Yielded, while sun-silt rippled them
How much I would have bartered! the black gorge
And all the singular nestings in the hills
Where beavers learn stitch and tooth.
The pond I entered once and quickly fled –
I remember now its singing willow rim.
And finally, in that memory all things nurse;
After the city that I finally passed
With scalding unguents spread and smoking darts
The monsoon cut across the delta
At gulf gates… There, beyond the dykes
I heard wind flaking sapphire, like this summer,
And willows could not hold more steady sound.