Hart Crane’s Bridge to Nowhere
Before Hart Crane’s leap into the Caribbean that fatal April noon in 1932, he folded his jacket over the ship’s rail with impeccable manners. Striking out into the glassy sea, he was seen no more, dying younger than Byron but older than Shelley. Not being a seagoing breed, poets rarely die by water — Shelley drowned in a sudden squall; but he had written 1,500 pages of poetry, while Crane left only two very short books and the shards of a third. The hope for a homegrown American epic that died with him has never entirely revived.
Walker Evans Archive/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Complete Poems and Selected Letters.
Edited by Langdon Hammer.
849 pp. The Library of America. $40.
The precocious son of a wealthy Cleveland candy manufacturer (Crane’s father created the Life Saver mint but sold the rights cheap), Crane dropped out of high school and persuaded his parents to send him to New York, where he hoped to make his way as a writer. Wearing the scarlet A of ambition, at 17 he confidently predicted that he would “really without doubt be one of the foremost poets in America.” In fact, Crane was soon published in some of the best little magazines. He impressed his friends, not just with his bulb-eyed and brutish good looks (there’s always room in New York for a handsome boy with manners and a wild streak), but with his canny critical judgment. He was a fan of Pound before “The Cantos” and Joyce before “Ulysses,” and was terrified by Eliot before “The Waste Land.” As early as 1920 he was recommending, before either had published a book, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, whom he referred to as “Marion” (Crane’s deranged spelling offers one of the quiet comedies of the new Library of America edition of his work).
Most of Crane’s short life was spent scuffling for money. His tightfisted father kept him on an allowance at first, but expected Crane to get a job. The poet tried various fits and shifts, finding employment most frequently in advertising (writing copy for, among other things, a new synthetic leather called Naugahyde), though at times he was forced back to Ohio, where he spent an unhappy Christmas selling candy from an Akron drugstore counter. No doubt his father saw this as his son’s first step toward inheriting the family business, but the experiment was not a success.
Crane’s early poems showed more style than talent, and from the start he was attracted to an obscurity that left some readers cold:
And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.
It helps only a little to know that this dreadful mess was called “Chaplinesque.” One of Crane’s friends later knocked on his door with Charlie Chaplin in tow, and the three went out on the town until dawn. Having learned this, a hundred American poets will begin odes to Angelina Jolie.
Crane was mystified, as most obscure poets are, when readers found his poems difficult — after all, they were perfectly clear to him. His obscurity was not that of Eliot or Pound, not a layered and allusive language whose intrigues deepened the more one examined it. Crane’s language, when not a matter of tangled metaphors (he mixed them almost more often than he mixed drinks), was a schoolboy code for which an English-Fustian, Fustian-English dictionary would have proved helpful. He came by his obscurity honestly — he didn’t read Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose style might have influenced him, until far too late. When you clear away the clutter from his verse, often you find only banalities — Crane flinched from Eliot’s dour observations and pince-nez disillusion, wanting to embody a rhapsodic vision of poetry it was difficult not to glaze with sentiment.
Crane tried on various identities as a young man and failed at most of them. He was frank about his homosexuality only with close friends — his sexual appetites were voracious and involved far too many sailors. (The definitive work on the United States Navy’s contributions to cruising has yet to be written.) Crane dreamed of being a poet much more often than he sat at his desk and wrote poems; and he was forever complaining in letters that he had no time to write, though he found plenty of time to drink. He conceived his major poem, “The Bridge,” as early as 1923 but made only desultory progress toward it. (Remaining drunk all through Prohibition proved surprisingly easy.) It was hard work, avoiding real work; but Crane became an expert at writing cadging letters to his divorced parents and playing one against the other.
Forever broke, dramatically threatening to slave away on the docks or drive a truck, Crane took to writing begging letters to millionaires, or at least one millionaire, and got lucky. The financier Otto Kahn, the major shareholder in the Metropolitan Opera, offered to loan him $2,000 to write “The Bridge” (Kahn also backed Gershwin and Eisenstein). The poet was soon ensconced in a shabby house in upstate New York, spending his benefactor’s initial installment as if it would last forever (on snowshoes, as well as wood carvings from the Congo, among other things) and asking for advances on the remainder. Kahn hardly lacked the wherewithal — his fireproof castle on Long Island grew to 100,000 square feet, and his 80-room Fifth Avenue mansion was stuffed with old masters.
Crane usually bit the hand that fed him, but you have to like a poet whose revelation of his own genius occurred in a dentist’s chair (“An objective voice kept saying to me — ‘You have the higher consciousness. … This is what is called genius’ ”). He told his father that critics believed his first book, “White Buildings” (1926), would be the most important debut in American poetry since “Leaves of Grass.” These critics, who happened to be his friends, loyally judged him by the poems he had yet to write.
Chronically out of sorts, creatively ill (his life would have been far happier after the introduction of decongestants), prone to “enthusiasms” we might now call mania, argumentative, often spectacularly drunk, Crane would have gotten on anyone’s nerves. He had spent most of the millionaire’s thousands when he departed abruptly for his mother’s ramshackle plantation off Cuba (his family owned houses all over the place). There, after much grouching and complaint, he completed half of “The Bridge,” which he saw not as an epic but as a “long lyric poem, with interrelated sections.”
It would take Crane three more years to finish the poem, spending months in California as companion to a neurasthenic stockbroker, squandering an inheritance from his grandmother on a trip to Paris, his drunkenness meanwhile growing wilder and more uncontrollable. When “The Bridge” was finally published in 1930, Crane felt betrayed by the mixed reviews it received from Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, his old friends, who had begun to have second thoughts, not about Crane’s gifts, but about his ability to profit from them.
Much of “The Bridge” seems inert now —overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed. At his best, he stayed just this side of wild-eyed prophesying, though his grandeurs might easily be mistaken for grandiosity:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty —
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.
This is a beautifully managed passage; but even Crane’s most thrilling lines can be cloying, always an adjective too rich or a noun too boisterous, the most beautiful stanzas naïve as history or infused with a crude faith in progress almost embarrassing now. He was drawn to a high-amp schmaltziness he must have taken as the proper emotional tone for a visionary.
Crane wanted to drag the language of Marlowe and Webster into the Jazz Age. Beneath his jewel-encrusted lines, however, the poem seems trivial, its ideas torn from the daily paper or the pages of a high-school history textbook:
While Cetus-like, O thou Dirigible, enormous Lounger
Of pendulous auroral beaches, — satellited wide
By convoy planes, moonferrets that rejoin thee
On fleeing balconies as thou dost glide,
— Hast splintered space!
We have no long poems this close to being great that are greater failures. (Why do American poets so often lose their bearings, and their taste, when writing about America?) The poem’s creaky swiveling through time, its brassy versifying and its phony demotic seem dated now, not because Crane was heavily indebted to “The Waste Land” (despite frequently disparaging Eliot), but because he learned so little from it. Reading “The Bridge” is like being stuck in a mawkish medley from “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma” — you’d buy the Brooklyn Bridge to make it stop. Critics since have tried to make a case for the poem, for the coherence of its incoherent parts (criticism, like poetry, is often wishful thinking); but “The Bridge” remains a fabulous architectural blueprint that wanted a discipline Crane could never provide.
The poet’s last year was spent on a Guggenheim fellowship in Mexico (we are lucky he left nothing of his projected epic on the Aztecs). He behaved so badly that his friend Katherine Anne Porter ratted him out to the foundation, which almost terminated the fellowship. In his final months, exhausted and miserable, he began an affair with Malcolm Cowley’s estranged wife, an older woman Crane called “Twidget,” and wrote a homosexual friend that he had “broken ranks” with the “brotherhood.” Perhaps the romance was merely a sign of his boredom and mental exhaustion — it did nothing to slow down his secret pickups and Jack Tar chasing.
The Library of America edition, edited by Langdon Hammer, contains more of Crane than most readers will ever need. The poems take up so little space, this well-edited volume has been pieced out with more than 500 pages of letters (Crane was an energetic correspondent though rarely one memorable or even bearable — great ones don’t usually whine so much). E. E. Cummings once remarked that Crane’s mind was “no bigger than a pin”; but Crane had a sharp critical temperament that appears to best advantage in his letters: “God DAMN this constant nostalgia for something always ‘new,’ ” he wrote, and “I detest a certain narcissism in the voluptuous melancholics of Eliot.” The edition’s scattershot notes are helpful, but the chronology of Crane’s life averts its gaze from his athletic philandering and the exact events leading to his suicide — he had been badly beaten during the night by a sailor he propositioned.
Crane still makes young men want to write poetry — his best lines are extraordinary, even if there are few major poems, or even very good ones. He failed to write the poetry of the American continent Emerson was calling for before the Civil War: if the ideal seems naïvely nationalistic now, the country was once younger and less cynical. Crane was no innovative genius like Whitman; he was perhaps closer to a peasant poet like John Clare, an outsider too susceptible to praise and other vices of the city. Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, gripping a rum in one hand and a copy of “The Waste Land” in the other. Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded.
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