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Hart Crane: 'The unbetrayable reply'

By Don Harrell / September 22, 1982



On April 27, 1932, the American poet Hart Crane stepped to the stern of the Orizaba, a cruise ship in the Atlantic, dropped his overcoat to the deck, and jumped overboard. The captain turned the ship around and sent out lifeboats to find him. But after two hours of circling the area the crew abandoned its rescue efforts and the ship resumed its course to New York.

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Crane was thirty-three at the time of his death, a young poet just coming into his own. All his mature life he had worked at a series of frustrating and petty jobs, trying to muster enough money to live on. He resented the valuable hours and days this grubbing for food took from his writing. A fiercely dedicated poet, he was determined that nothing would stand in the way of his work.

American poetry has rarely seen the kind of single-minded artistic dedication that characterized Hart Crane. We have had writers who sacrificed careers and family for their art, but seldom with the total absorption of Crane. Even fifty years after his death he remains a prime example of the complete artist, a Keatsian flame of originality that burned itself out before reaching maturity.

Anyone interested in Crane will find a remarkably slender output for a major figure. He produced two small volumes of poems and a handful of reviews and essays on theory and composition. His clearest aesthetic statement is contained, like that of Keats, in a sizable collection of letters to friends and fellow writers. He is a difficult poet. His lines are short and dense, his images obscure. A full grasp of Crane's texture depends upon some knowledge of French and a circle of contemporary poets he admired and used as points of reference.

Crane was a natural inheritor of Emily Dickinson's tightly meditative and private style. Yet he thought of himself in directly opposite terms - as an epic poet expressing grand and public themes, far more the child of Whitman than Dickinson. His major and best-known work,''The Bridge'' is a deliberate attempt at an American epic. He never completed a long narrative poem drawn from the explorations of Cortez in Mexico.

Fusing art and biography is always risky business, but I believe that one source of tension in Crane's brief life was a pull toward the epic style even though his natural instincts were private, lyric, and meditative. Repeatedly in his letters he expresses a drive to celebrate America, and to capture in the image of Brooklyn Bridge its transcending importance. He used this symbol as both a concrete monument to progress and the spiritual bond between man and God.

But for all its ambition,''The Bridge'' is not really an epic. There is no controlling consciousness, no major figure of national importance, no single grand theme or celebration.

Crane was not a trained historian, and he was not even particularly interested in American thought and development. This sketchy preparation and commitment shows in the poem. Various sections are brilliant in evoking a mood or place - ''The Harbor Dawn,'' for instance, and ''Atlantis,'' the final peroration - but the contrast between these and the flat, rather prosaic middle sections only enforces a lack of unity and cohesion in the whole.''The Bridge'' is actually a series of separate lyrics.

Crane's most successful work, in my opinion, is found in White Buildings, a collection of poems published when he was twenty-seven. Here he deals with such personal themes as love and loss, the fatal attractions of nature, the necessary discipline of the poet, and the redemptive power of art. He refers to a range of earlier writers and artists he admired - Herman Melville, Ben Jonson, Charlie Chaplin, the painter Ernest Nelson - including them in a community of kindred spirits. There is no self-conscious attempt to force his poems into a structured form, and the natural affinity Crane feels for his subject is reflected in the ease and comfort of the short stanzas.

I know the importance of ''The Bridge'' in American poetry. It stands as one of the few major efforts in this century to construct a mythic statement of our progress and heritage. It is difficult to work through its elaborate patterns of imagery and fail to respond with awe to Crane's purpose and scope, at the sheer force of his language.

But when I think of Hart Crane and his distinctive, perhaps tragic, voice, it's the earlier poems that come to mind: ''Black Tambourine,'' ''Chaplinesque, '' ''Praise for an Urn,'' and ''For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen.''

Most of all, I think of ''Voyages,'' the six love lyrics that come at the end of White Buildings. In this series Crane describes the exhilaration of physical love and its eventual, inevitable, loss. Time, passion, and youth necessarily change, but the poet finds redemption in ''the imaged Word,'' Crane's descriptive term for poetry and its power to heal:

The imaged Word, it is, that holds Hushed willows anchored in its glow. It is the unbetrayable reply Whose accent no farewell can know.