Hart Crane (1899-1932)
Contributing Editor: Margaret Dickie
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I set Crane in the context of Pound and Eliot where students can see the ambitions he shared with his fellow modernists to "make it new," to write a poem including history, even to define the role of the poet as a cultural spokesman. And, in that context, I try to distinguish the larger concerns of his career that set him apart from his fellow poets; his interest in the "logic of metaphor" as making it new, his focus on American rather than world history, and his search to find his identity in his role as a poet, all indicate how he reinterpreted the modernist program to suit his own purposes. I urge students, who may have been reading Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot through the footnotes to their poems, to abandon that approach to Crane and to concentrate instead on those elements they find most perplexing in his work: the language, the experience, and the dislocated references.
Central to any discussion of Crane is his role as a homosexual poet. Quite apart from the task of placing him in the modernist movement, students will need to understand Crane's sense of himself as a figure marginalized both by his chosen profession as a poet in a capitalist economy and by his sexual identity as a homosexual in the ideology of literary and cultural authority that made, as Thomas Yingling has suggested, "homosexuality an inadmissible center from which to write about American life" (27). I introduce Crane with "Black Tambourine" and "Chaplinesque" where he identifies the poet with the "black man" and the tramp in order to show how he felt himself marginalized; and, as part of the discussion, I try to indicate also how he was willing to appropriate such marginal figures for his own use without much regard to their own status. In this respect, "Black Tambourine" can be compared to Gertrude Stein's "Melanctha" as similar projections onto African-American subjects of each author's homosexuality and his/her unwillingness to confront it directly.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes developed in the early lyric poems and carried through The Bridge and to the last poem he wrote, "The Broken Tower," include the artist as an outcast in the modern industrialized and urbanized world, Crane's need nonetheless to find ways to celebrate the modern world and to articulate an affirmative myth of America, the search to discover in the present the positive values of the American past, Crane's deepening despair over the possibilities of accomplishing such a bold program, and finally the lifelong effort to find a means of expressing his homosexuality, of masking it, of making it viable and meaningful both for himself and for his audience.
Historically, Crane is a modernist who departs widely from the movement. His effort to write a long poem belongs to the early stages of modernism when Ezra Pound was starting The Cantos, T. S. Eliot completing The Waste Land, and William Carlos Williams was producing Spring & All and In the American Grain. Although Crane's effort, The Bridge, is too long to be included in full in the anthology, the selected sections--"To Brooklyn Bridge" and "The River"--should serve to indicate both his Native American subjects and the range of his style from formal quatrains through Whitmanian catalogues to collage and narrative. His place in the canon has seldom been challenged even by his earlier critics who found his long poem intellectually and structurally flawed, his life-style reprehensible, and his suicide inevitable; but his achievement is of another order from Eliot's or Pound's, and it must be read on its own terms.
Personally, the central question in Crane's life was how to be a homosexual poet, a writer able to express his own identity in culturally meaningful ways. The central issue of his career was the composition of The Bridge, which he worked on during most of his writing life, even when the inspiration of the long poem failed him and his belief in its purpose faltered.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The modernist long poem was the form Crane hoped to invent. He offered various explanations of his program chiefly to Otto Kahn, a philanthropist from whom he sought financial aid, claiming, "What I am really handling, you see, is the myth of America. Thousands of strands have had to be searched for, sorted and interwoven. . . . For each section of the entire poem has presented its own unique problem of form, not alone in relation to the materials embodied within its separate confines, but also in relation to the other parts, in series, of the major design of the entire poem" (Letters 305). The two sections in the anthology should suggest something of Crane's method of interweaving different strands as well as the variety of forms that he employed. The design of the whole poem eluded him.
To Harriet Monroe, he described his theory of the logic of metaphor as distinct from pure logic, arguing that he was "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 perceptions involved in the poem." I encourage students to consider this statement, puzzling out its significance, and to examine the short poems in light of it in order to see how words interact and develop in a chain of free associations.
Crane's original audience included editors and readers of the little magazines of the 1920s, fellow poets, and literary friends such as Malcolm Cowley, Harry and Caresse Crosby, Waldo Frank, Gorham Munson, Katherine Anne Porter, and Allen Tate. He has always been a poet's poet, and his reputation has been nourished by the tributes of poets as different as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell. The rise of gay and lesbian studies has inspired renewed interest in his career. For an extremely informative reading of his homosexual themes and style, see Yingling.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Crane pitted himself against the formidable reputation of Eliot and The Waste Land. The Bridge would, he hoped, be an answer to what he imagined as Eliot's negative view of modern life. He allied himself with William Carlos Williams, whose In the American Grain influenced him as he worked on his long poem, although the selections for Williams in the anthology are not ideal for drawing a comparison here. Perhaps Williams's "Spring and All" or "To Elsie" might serve as treatments of the American landscape and people that Crane would have shared.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. If Crane identified with the "black man" and Charlie Chaplin or with the hoboes in "The River," did he have any sympathy for their plight or was he simply appropriating them as suitable images of his own difficulties?
2. Consider why Melville would have been important to Crane. In what sense is a "scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph" an apt description of Crane's own verse?
3. Discuss the image of the Brooklyn Bridge as a technological achievement and as a significant poetic symbol for Crane.
4. In what sense is breaking an important imaginative act for Crane? Look at "The Broken Tower" as Crane's final acceptance of brokenness in himself and in his world.