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Life and Works

 

Hart Crane enjoys the dubious privilege of being possibly the most difficult figure to pinpoint in American letters. Even his literary reputation remains unclear after so many years, and in many ways it is only natural that it should be so: America is a country that bears a most ambiguous relationship with success and failure, and Crane stands as a poet whose impossible ambition led him to inevitable yet immensely beautiful failure. I have only the greatest respect for the poetry of those who try to reach the impossible and in so doing create something that is flawed but incredibly beautiful at the same time. "Imperfect beauty" is a recurrent expression in Hart Crane scholarship, and one that critics handle very carefully, as if in fear of failing to treat him justly, but also unwilling to endorse his most unconventional style too enthusiastically, perhaps for-again-fear of other critics' disdain. In any case, Hart Crane the Romantic born too late and in the wrong country (that alone should suffice to consider his project doomed from the start, perhaps) did succeed in creating some of the most powerful, intriguing, and compelling imagery written in English.

Born in Ohio in 1899, Crane was raised by bourgeois parents in a family marked by an emotional instability that they very soon managed to instill in young Hart. A beautiful, neurotic, and hypochondriac mother and a father who owned a chocolate factory proved anything but an ideal combination for him. The couple quarreled constantly and he found himself invariably on his mother's side. To say that he was overexposed to his mother's company would be a gross understatement. It was through his mother that he had access to the most inappropriate details of his parents' marital life. This example would eventually have devastating effects for his adult relationships, which were mostly of the sporadic sort. On the other hand, it was precisely thanks to one of his mother's breakdowns that he ended up living in Cleveland at his grandmother's. There he was first exposed to a wealth of Romantic and Victorian literature, an affinity that he pursued later in New York, expanding his interests toward the poetry of the French Symbolists. In New York he dropped any residual academic interest and adopted a Bohemian lifestyle financially supported by his parents' resources. Other than artists, alcohol and sailors became his regular companions. By then he had assumed his homosexuality and seemed to be rather active in pursuing different but equally short relationships.

At eighteen he was already publishing poetry, and experiencing what would become a constant diatribe between tradition and innovation, but his parents divorced in 1917 and he was forced to leave the city and find himself a job, which he did until the end of the War. After many discussions over what his father considered a pernicious maternal influence, he eventually broke all relationship with his father and returned to New York. There he wrote (but would not publish until 1926) White Buildings, his first volume of poetry. In these early poems there is a clear optimism that somewhat opposes (originally as a coincidence, perhaps, but later on very deliberately) the desperation found in The Waste Land. In a similarly obscure style, Crane celebrates a faith in both Nature's rebirth and the twentieth century's progress, the latter symbolized in technological innovations (best seen in his early homage to film, "Chaplinesque", and later on, of course, in the engineering marvel that hangs between Brooklyn and Manhattan).

But Manhattan also represented a chaotic urban frenzy that he found unnecessarily noisy, tiring, and stressful. In 1923 he moved to the countryside in upper state New York, where hoped to recover his inspiration in a friendlier atmosphere. Upon returning to the city, he fell in love with Emil Opffer, the sailor who inspired Voyages. This is truly a work that deserves serious attention, a celebration of the power of love and the sweeping changes it can operate in human beings. After that, and now clearly aiming at some entirely American response to Eliot, Crane undertook his most ambitious project yet-the early sections of what would become The Bridge. It was 1923-24 and the Brooklyn Bridge was to serve as the central symbol that would articulate and give coherence to his grand American epic poem. Shortly afterwards, the publication of White Buildings definitely put him on the literary map.

Critical response to White Buildings was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it granted him respect as a European-influenced poet of impressive and original stylistic register and daring imagery; on the other, his ability to make sense was publicly questioned by many different voices. While at the intellectual level his reaction was sober and argumentative, emotionally these reviews contributed to create a problematic insecurity and lack of confidence in his own skill. His response is the already famous letter to Harriet Monroe (editor of Poetry then) where he refutes the claims that poetry should be logical at all in a conventional sense. Poetry should have a logic of its own, he implied, and rationalistic expectations were sure to be frustrated by any reading of his poems:

Is a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and the perceptions involved in the poem. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past. Its paradox, of course, is that its apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic, quite independent of the original definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed. It implies (this inflection of language) a previous or prepared receptivity to its stimulus on the part of the reader. The reader's sensibility simply responds by identifying this inflection of experience with some event in his own history or perceptions - or rejects it altogether. The logic of metaphor is so organically entrenched in pure sensibility that it can't be thoroughly traced or explained outside of historical sciences, like philology and anthropology. This "pseudo-statement," as I. A. Richards calls it in an admirable essay touching our contentions in last July's Criterion ["A Background to Contemporary Poetry" 3 (July 1925), 511-528], demands completely other faculties of recognition than the pure rationalistic associations permit.

Crane traveled to Europe using the money inherited after his father's death, and there he radicalized his self-indulgent lifestyle among the American expatriate community of artists and writers. Upon return to the U.S. his self-confidence suffered another major blow when critics responded again with mixed reviews to The Bridge. In general they seemed to agree on the creative greatness of the project as well as on his having fallen short of the (admittedly impossibly demanding) mark. While the originality and ambition of the book were appreciated by almost everyone, virtually nobody perceived it as a true poetic achievement, especially because genre and subject seemed to collide. In the words of Yvor Winters: "the book cannot be called an epic, in spite of its endeavor to create and embody a national myth, because it has no narrative framework and so lacks the formal unity of an epic."

The Bridge obtained respect and sympathy, though, but they were not enough to drag Crane out of a self-destructive spiral of disappointment and alcohol. He applied for and obtained a Guggenheim fellowship that he decided to spend in Mexico, where he wrote little and drank much, and during the return trip on the S.S. Orizaba he simply-if that is the word-jumped from the ship's deck somewhere off the Florida coast.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Copyright 1994 by Oxford University Press.