As I read The Complete Poems of Hart Crane it crossed my mind several times that despite his claims to Whitman as his inspiration Crane sounded more like The Beats than he did Walt Whitman. In fact the sense of despair underlying his longing for a better world immediately reminded me of Kerouac, while his style reminded me of Gregory Corso. I was pleasantly surprised when I found an article at Literary Kicks where “betabandido” says, “It is tempting to borrow his own iconography and say that Crane was the bridge from Walt Whitman to the Beats.” And while betabandido goes on to argue that Crane is much more than a bridge, I think that seeing Crane and the Beats from this perspective illuminates both of their works.
Although I think I would rank Hart Crane higher than any of the Beats, with the possible exception of Gary Snyder, I certainly wouldn’t rank him as high as Harold Bloom does in the introduction, putting him in the same company as Walt Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and Emerson. In many ways, he reminds me more of Dylan Thomas than any of these, a meteoric career that tragically ends in an early demise. His early works almost remind me of Yeats’ early pastoral poetry, leading me to wonder what Crane would have written in later years if he hadn’t committed suicide.
Although I worry that my perception of Crane’s poetry is unduly colored by my knowledge that he was troubled by his gay lifestyle and by the fact that he committed suicide, it’s hard for me not to give more creedance to the sense of despair that pervades his poetry than to the Whitmanesque joy that is also undeniably found there. Invariably, though, the sense of despair found in his poems, like the despair of Kerouac, seems more convincing than the joy he so desperately seeks.
My favorite poem in the section entitled “Poems Unpublished by Crane” is:
Toward peace and the grey margins of the day.
I have drawn my hands away
The andante of vain hopes and lost regret
Falls like slow rain that whispers to forget,-
Like a song that neither questions nor replies
It laves with coolness tarnished lips and eyes.
I have drawn my hands away
At last to touch the ungathered rose. 0 stay,
Moment of dissolving happiness! Astir
Already in the sky, night’s chorister
Has brushed a petal from the jasmine moon,
And the heron has passed by, alas, how soon!
I have drawn my hands away
Like ships for guidance in the lift and spray
Of stars that urge them toward an unknown goal.
Drift, 0 wakeful one, 0 restless soul,
Until the glittering white open hand
Of heaven thou shalt read and understand.
The “moment of dissolving happiness” seems engulfed by the “grey margins of the day” and the “vain hopes” and “lost regret.” Although he longs for the stars and all they represent, it seems unlikely that drifting will enable him to attain the stars.
The fragment entitled “I Rob My Breast,” suggests, to me, at least, that Crane was all too aware that his attempts to reach the great heights he longed for were the cause of much “heart-ache:”
I ROB MY BREAST…
I rob my breast to reach those altitudes-
To meet the meaningless concussion of
Pure heights-Infinity resides below ….
The obelisk of plain infinity founders below
My vision is a grandiose dilemma-
Place de la Concorde! Across that crowded plain-
I fought to see the stricken bones, the noble
Carcass of a general, dead Foch, proceed
To the defunct pit of Napoleon-in honor
Defender, not usurper.
My countrymen,-give form and edict-
To the marrow. You shall know
The harvest as you have known the spring
But I believe that such “wreckage” as I find
Remaining presents evidence of considerably more
Significance than do the cog-walk gestures
Of a beetle in a sand pit.
In his introduction Bloom says “Crane’s actual religious heritage was his mother’s Christian Science, which never affected him.” Having come from a similar heritage, I would tend to disagree with Bloom’s observation, as Bloom seems unaware that the underlying Christian Science beliefs are quite similar to those propounded by Emerson and Whitman. Christian Scientists believe that “We are all incarnations of God. Jesus was a divine Exemplar, and Christ is the divine idea of “sonship — the Master. Jesus showed the way (the “wayshower”) for all to realize Truth, which is God. We are all sons/daughters of God.”
While this belief that we are “all incarnations of God” if we only realize it can be liberating, it also places immense demands on the individual who feels unworthy. It has sometimes struck me that it would be far easier to believe that we are all born sinners and can only be saved by accepting Jesus as our savior than to believe that we must each realize our own godhead or fail ourselves.
Such a “vision is a grandiose dilemma” for one who feels that he has fallen and lost touch with his inner self. Indeed, perhaps this view is a “grandiose dilemma” for any of us subject to the pressures of modern life, pressures that are more apt to lead us to Eliot and Pound’s despair than to Emerson and Whitman’s Transcendence.
Still, Crane seems to believe that even the “wreckage” of such a vision is preferable to the wasteland that Eliot and others of his generation envisioned. Better to try to attain enlightenment, to “give form and edict to the marrow,” than to resign oneself to a world without spirit.
Here’s another place to find Hart Crane on the web: