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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

A recent post in which I include a dictionary definition that features the poet Hart Crane, reignited in me a desire to go back and read more of his poetry.

Mr. Crane was considered one of the Modernist Poets--the poets who broke all the heretofore existing poetry "rules" more than any other preceding poetry movement.  The Modernists began-ish with the likes of Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson and ended-ish with the likes of Anne Carson & Sherman Alexie.  The Modernist Movement existed from approximately the late-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth.  The Modernists were brave and interesting and many will argue "rather difficult to understand".  Of that group, you will find T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound at the helm.

Hart Crane was in many ways no different.  He was a true Modernist who relied heavily upon intricate metaphors and obscure historical references to express important ideas.  The Modernists were not known for reaching the "everyday" man and required you to "work" at their poetry.  I'm assuming at this point, I have lost many of you!  Which in our non-appreciation-of poetry-yet-incredibly-poetic-world-we-live-in is simply a reality.  I'm the epitome of a non-salesman, so no sales pitch here.  Go if you must.  But if you're even vaguely interested and if my comment about our poetic-world struck a chord, please read on ........

Hart Crane wrote an overall aesthetic of "celebrating crucifixion and resurrection, horror or squalor out of which suddenly radiate hope and light." (1)  He wrote like a Modernist, acknowledging poetically the bad-ness of the world and yet, in his case, expressing poetically the possibility-ness of it all.  It is this quality in his writing that makes me love him.                            
"He takes unusual words, combines them in an unusual way, and forms them into unexpected rhythms, as if his technique as well as his subject matter were intended to expand the boundaries of consciousness.  When he was reproved for the difficulty of his work, Crane explained, in a 1926 letter to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, that his object was to find a logic of metaphor that would not be the logic of rational thought.  This pursuit of unconscious interconnections of "emotional dynamics" working through abbreviated thoughts is different from the explained images of the Metaphysical poets; it works by sudden forced conjunctions that find their justification at deeper levels of meaning.  Crane has as much complexity as any modern poet, but largely self-taught, he does not present himself as difficult and allusive; rather, his powerful speech and rhythms claim the instant response that his intricate images would seem to delay." (2)
Don't feel bad if you had to read that twice.  I think I've read it seven times at this point.  In any case, his work!  Here's some:



The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgement on the world's closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow of a bottle,
And a roach spans a crevice in the floor.

Aesop, driven to pondering, found
Heaven with the tortoise and the hare;
Fox brush and sow ear top his grave
And mingling incantations on the air.

The black man, forlorn in the cellar,
Wanders in some mid-kingdom, dark, that lies,
Between his tambourine, stuck on the wall,
And, in Africa, a carcass quick with flies.
                                     --Hart Crane (1926)

Crane explains, in this piece, "The word 'mid-kingdom' is perhaps the key word to what ideas there are in it.  The poem is a description and bundle of insinuations, suggestions bearing out the negro's place somewhere between man and beast." (3)

This is me, adding food for thought: this was published in 1926.  Not 2010.  Have things changed that much?  Honestly now??  Changed???  Simply, are we still racists?


In my opinion this next poem is breathtaking in its "simple complexity", and again, for its relevance to today.  Published the same year as Black Tambourine, Crane writes about Chaplinesque, ".....that I like the poem as much as anything I have done." (4)  He was a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and includes numerous references to Chaplin's The Kid in this poem--be sure to notice them.  Don't forget to notice as well, how the words sound/feel .....something all the great poets are known for.  Read it once, maybe, for meaning, and another time for sound.


We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index finger toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet those fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies (5) are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart;
What blame to us if the heart (6) live on.

The game enforces smirks; 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.
                              --Hart Crane (1926)


And finally, this one, quite coincidentally again published in 1926, that is simply ________ (fill-in the blank with a "good" word!).  Think about what it might mean to you .......don't worry at all about what it meant to him.  That simple rule is really the best way to read poetry.


The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande (7) 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 cypresses shared the noon's
Tyranny; they drew me into hades (8) almost.
And mammoth turtles climbing sulphur dreams
Yielded, while sun-silt rippled them
Asunder . . . 

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 (9) 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.
                              --Hart Crane (1926)

Now if those words could not be more relevant to today as we belabor to stuff golf balls and tire remnants into a hole on the ocean floor (has anyone thought about that "pollution" btw?  millions of golf balls & pieces of tires??  in the ocean???) then I shall eat this blog!

Thank-you for your patience readers.  This was a long one.


PS--the modernist poets usually require the most footnotes!
(1) and (2) Ramazani, Jahan; Ellmann, Richard; O'Clair, Robert, editors. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry "Volume 1 Modern Poetry". Third Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: 2003. Print. Page 605.
(3) and (4) Ramazani, Jahan; Ellmann, Richard; O'Clair, Robert, editors. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry "Volume 1 Modern Poetry". Third Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: 2003. Print. Page 607.
(5) quy n. pl. A funeral rite or ceremony.  Often used in the plural.
(6) According to Crane, a deliberate pun on his first name.
(7) sar.a.bande n. A stately court dance from the 17th and 18th centuries.
(8) pr. n. The underworld of Greek mythology; Hell.
(9) unguent(s) n. Ointment(s)

PPS--Here's a fascinating little Hart Crane factoid ......his dad was the candy manufacturer who invented Life Savers!!!!  (Can you imagine how a self-made business tycoon and a sensitive poet son must have gotten along?  Am guessing it wasn't smooth sailing .......)

WEIRD!!  Something else!  (I wonder if I'm the only one who's ever put this together? .....I just put it together now! ......probably not but still!)  Prepare yourself.  This is in the category of wildly speculative & horrifyingly juicy!  And incredibly p-o-e-t-i-c.

Hart was thirty-two when he jumped off a ship in the Caribbean Sea.  It's generally agreed upon that he committed suicide yet in the above footnotes, see The Norton Anthology only make it page 606, it says this!!!!  " .....he went on deck and jumped into the Caribbean Sea.  Accounts differ (cue Twilight Zone music!) as to whether or not he tried to catch the life preserver (read: LIFE SAVER!!!!!) that was thrown to him."

I shouldn't be making so much fun.  Have to make sure I get credit for making amazing connection, somehow ..........oh!  Did I say that out loud?


Hart Crane
Hart Crane biography--The Poetry Foundation


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