Hart Crane’s “Black Tambourine”

Hart Crane, 1899-1932, is said to be a poet whose efforts were to “distill an image of America beyond space and time.”

Crane was born in 1899 in Garretsville, Ohio. Described as a “highly anxious and volatile child” he never finished high school, preferring to stay home, reading Shakespeare, Marlowe and Donne. His parents separated when he was nine years old, reconciled and finally divorced in 1917. His father, a candy manufacturer, never approved of his son’s writing; his mother who was often unstable, could not maintain any kind of normal relationship with her son and eventually they were estranged.

After his parents’ divorce, Crane moved to New York with no high school diploma, had love affairs with men, and lived the life of an impassioned if unsuccessful poet, moving back to his mother in Ohio when his money ran out. Alcoholism and instability prevented him from finding much support from family or friends.

At the age of 33, Crane made an attempt to change his sexual orientation and had a love affair with a woman in Mexico. One night as he sailed home with her, he said goodbye, climbed to the deck of the ship and jumped overboard. After his suicide, his mother sought fame for her son as she scrubbed floors for a living.

The influences of T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, whom he admired, are apparent. His poetry is complex, layered with meaning, ideas doubling back on themselves. I find the best way to enjoy Crane is to concentrate on his language and never mind attempting to understand his every word–something of a bother for compulsives. Even though not all parts of the poems are clear, one has to admire the intelligence and regret the suffering that produced them.

Here is an example of Crane’s work:

Black Tambourine

The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow of a bottle,
And a roach spans a crevice in the floor.

Aesop, driven to pondering, found
Heaven with the tortoise and the hare,
Fox brush and sow ear top his grave
And mingling incantations on the air.

The black man, forlorn in the cellar,
Wanders in some mid-kingdom, dark, that lies,
Between his tambourine, stuck on the wall,
And, in Africa, a carcass quick with flies.

The “interests” of a black man are the interests of any human being: to live, to love, to find joy, but this representative of a race notes late judgment from a foreign culture that has closed its door to his desire to be recognized as an equal. In the minds of his white brothers his lot is caste either in the cellar with its gnats, circling in the shadows of old bottles above the roaches jumping cracks in the cement floor or the owner of a drum that jangles out a noisy rhythm.

Aesop, the Greek slave who wrote of animal fables, found heaven in the animal kingdom.
The black man, forlorn in his lowly dark place wanders “mid-kingdom” between Aesop’s animals and his tambourine stuck on the wall, an equally damaging stereotype of the happy Negro.

A Negro with whom Crane worked in the basement storeroom of his father’s restaurant in Cleveland in the 1920s was the inspiration for this poem. To Crane, the man seemed placed in the mid-kingdom between beast and man. Aesop personified cute animals in his stories, white folk romanticized the Negro as a singing, strutting banjo playing, tambourine banging simpleton. This black man lives in the dark mid-kingdom, neither an animal nor a stereotype which sounds like a good thing and yet…

The images freshen our understanding: gnats in the shadow of a bottle, roaches spanning a crevice in the floor, a tambourine stuck on a wall, a carcass quick with flies.

Could this poem apply to every foreigner we hear Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw spotlight each evening? to ourselves? Are we are all mid-kingdom, neither an animal nor a romantic stereotype but something in-between?

Diane McCormick

6 thoughts on “Hart Crane’s “Black Tambourine””

  1. Your words for us to “…concentrate on his language and never mind attempting to understand his every word”, I think were good advice. But I also appreciated reading your interpretation because at first read, then second, third, and I think tenth, I had no catch on what the poem was saying. But when you supplied the history, as well as your interpretation, pieces came together.

  2. Thanks for providing the backdrop of the poem, which is crucial for understanding the poem.

    I like this poem very much, but I cannot understand the last line. Maybe it is because I am foreigner and my English is not good.

    Can you explian what “And, in Africa, a carcass quick with flies” exactly mean? Does it mean” a carcass is being quickly attacked (or occupied) by flies”? I assume that there omitted a verb.


  3. i am really into poetry but it is so hard to understand what hart writes. it seems as if there is alot of emotion put into it. i write poetry too. if there is an easier way for you to explain his poetry to me, could you please?
    my email address is

  4. Wang — this is a very late reply. “Quick with flies” means “Alive with flies” — “quick” is an old English synonym for “alive”.

  5. Saxophone

    The cellar is his bleak repose,
    in concert with the cockroaches and flies;
    there he wipes his runny nose,
    toils the day long, sunshine tries

    to insinuate through rough and crumbled boards.
    Complaining won’t dispel his conflicts,
    the bottom of the pile, his heritage affords
    no more, the atmosphere restricts

    his breath. It leans against the wall,
    his tarnished, dusty saxophone,
    a measure of the time when he stood tall,
    cadenzas blown with free and strident tone.


    My own interpretation of Crane’s poem.

    Thanks so much for your background notes… they are most helpful.

    Best wishes, Keith

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