It’s been more than fifteen years since I’ve taken a surprisingly beat-up copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane off the bookshelf and my memory is mostly of the feeling and of my Australian teacher’s skepticism at R.W.B. Lewis’ pronouncement on the back cover that “he ranks with Eliot as one of the two finest poets of the century; a cut above Stevens and Frost and two cuts about Pound and anyone else you might care to name.” After John Berryman’s Dream Songs, there was no poetry in the United States like the poetry of Hart Crane or the early Lowell; some of the middle Lowell still possessed that fire, but it had charred out by the 60s. The dissociated and dislocated metaphors of Plath are distinctly another thing. What Berryman, Lowell, and Crane did was something else: they wanted to break language, and break with the assumed and inherited coherence of reality, in order to remake that coherence; they wanted for their poems to find a harmony opposed to, and radically other than, the compromises and concords of syntax and sense that preside over urbane language and the language of a nation, the language of a people and peoples. Whereas Whitman finds intensity in absorbing and assimilating the language of a nation into his own voice; whereas Dickinson’s intensity relies upon a crabbed decorum that pushes back against the judgments of the world; Crane absorbed, whether directly or via Eliot, the lessons of the French symbolists, and adjusted them, as Eliot had not, to the resources of American English. Along with Dickinson and Whitman, Crane is an original, a point of departure; he is the Baroque mannerist of the first American Renaissance.
The poetry is deeply personal, nostalgic, and looking to the individual’s experience of the past, in order to discover the nation’s—but that individual experience, though Crane ventriloquizes with the brash leap that nowadays we forgive more readily in novelists than in poets, is not the placid, limpid voices of Masters or Robinson. It is instead the occasion for the Symbolist tradition. In American English, that means recovering something like a high style, elevating personal history beyond its stature and confines, transforming it into another stratosphere of language and temporal vantage, and sometimes that means accommodating to American English words that are not native to the twentieth-century or the naturalism we expect after Whitman. Crane is the only American poet of the twentieth century who can write “thy” and “thee.” The nostalgia, then, is personal and supra-personal (not impersonal) at once.
The mystery of how he can get away with “Thy” and “Thou” and “Thee” and not have it feel heavily ironic or as if he is only registering a distance between himself and another, foreign, historic poetic idiom seems crucial to Crane’s success. I think that, for whatever other differences he has, it is something the French and even non-American Anglo-poets could not have taught him; something he learned from Whitman. In Whitman, the potential dissolution of the American voice, fragmented across a landscape into pockets of region, into a nation without a shared sense of occasion (until the Civil War), without the ossifying and ossified social stratifications that would give poets the license to adopt a “gentleman’s” urbane voice—in Whitman, that is redeemed and vindicated by the license to embrace all within the self, without irony. In Whitman, the grounds for alienation become the source of intimacy, and the intimacy can soar higher than any one experience or locution, though it can speak to and from any; the poet is exposed, unadorned, but because of that capable, not of putting on costumes for make-believe, but of wearing, as necessary clothing, the experiences and language of others.
The idea of intimacy, in both Crane and Whitman, is closely associated with nostalgia: anyone’s language can be a source of nostalgia; everyone has an origin that can be reckoned relevant to the present, and intimacy is not so much sexual for Whitman (and even Crane) as, c.f. Whitman’s “Out of the Crade” or Crane’s “Voyages,” a yearning to return home, to the point of familial, and above all maternal, origin—with the anterior nothingness casting a shadow over it.
Whitman tells an American poet that any language is fair game, so long as it can be spoken with the assumption of intimacy and equality that it is the country’s social promise. Crane weds that openness to language with the fervent ambition of symbolism to write a poem that becomes an object cutting through, and fundamentally other than, the world of which it is a part: compounded of worldly matter, it becomes an emergent system, as it were, distinct from the world. The poet’s initial alienation of the poet is overcome by the liberty for intimacy and range, as in Whitman; but then, as in the French symbolists, the language that is nostalgically harbored is in turn made alien to the world. It is a double movement from alienation to intimacy and back to alienation that is found in Rimbaud, albeit the French would not have to work to find a place to accommodate words like “Thee” and “Thou” without strange affectation.
When I looked at my bookshelf to see what my usual gallery of critic’s had to say about Crane, I found little: the Winters on hand does not have much on him, but Winters’ views are well-known (and worth mentioning first as a consequence); Davie, in Purity of Diction, mentions Crane, classifying him, against late Eliot, as an American poet whose figurative energy owes to Shakespeare rather than urbane poetry; most surprising, given his debt to Allen Tate, who owes something to Crane, the index for the collected criticism of Geoffrey Hill has no mention of Crane; least surprising, given his charmed ability to appreciate (failing notably only with Crane’s contemporary Stevens), Empson remarks several times that he finds Crane to be a first-rate poet, among the best of the Americans, and it is Empson who I feel would best be able to make sense of Crane, keeping up with metaphors that work in several ways at once, holding fast to the subject matter of a stanza or line, despite the distractions and elisions, and working to understand despite the temptation to bristle at what might seem like purpled verse (some of the verse feels loaded with ore in much the same way as Empson’s; in fact, hearing Crane in Empson and Empson in Crane is a help in recognizing the Romantic virtues of the one and the Metaphysical virtues of the other). It feels, after all, besides the point to do more than let oneself tackle head-on the puzzle of the sort of poetry that fills the final section of The Bridge, “Atlantis”:
From gulfs unfolding, terrible of drums,
Tall Vision-of-the-Voyage, tensely spare—
Bridge, lifting night to cycloramic crest
Of deepest day—O Choir, translating time
Into what multitudinous Verb the suns
And synergy of waters ever fuse, recast
In myriad syllables—Psalm of Cathay!
O Love, thy white, pervasive Paradigm…!
I find it fairly astonishing that a poet in 1930 count anticipate two of the most over-used words of corporate finance nearly 100 years after, writing first “synergy” and then “Paradigm” in three lines. But it also doesn’t feel, to me, off-putting because it feels like Crane is genuinely trying to relate, all at once, a complex impression of the world; he is focusing on an object that cannot stand still, that is more than one thing, and that elicits more than one feeling. None of it feels like obfuscation. Perhaps what does most to pull the verse back from the abyss is that Crane doesn’t let us lose sight of his writing about something that has historical reality, that exists in a present before him, that has physical form against which his body is set and receptive; it is not about the “idea” of Love or The Many v. The One or even “History,” but about something, a Bridge, that is in history, that can be encountered, by Crane’s poetry, in order to understand the history of which it is a part. And, even remaining at such altitudes, Crane can modulate his pitch. The stanza that follows:
We left the haven hanging in the night—
Sheened harbor lanterns backward fled the keel.
Pacific here at time’s end, bearing corn,–
Eyes stammer through the pangs of dust and steel.
And still the circular, indubitable frieze
Of heaven’s meditation, yoking wave
To kneeling wave, one song devoutly binds—
The vernal strophe chimes from deathless strings!
Reading the lines, there is no claiming to consciously know, each step of the way, how Crane’s metaphors proceed from one another, what arguments they imply, or how they combine; that would be a feat of analysis. However, trusting to experience that, seventeen years ago, when I first read Crane, I lacked, I’m confirmed in the thrilling sensation that much is being communicated at once, that the impression is not illusory, and that the tacit recognition of puzzles awaiting solution is valid; the cascade of thoughts not articulated or even pursued, and the glimpses of vistas they provide, is suggestive that matter drives the manner of Crane’s verse. It nearly comes apart, but not for straining towards affect–and here, and elsewhere, the dissolution coincides with a calm, a release into a history and life greater than the poetry can contain.