Though he reminds me more of Gregory Corso or Gerard Manly Hopkins, Hart Crane apparently would have preferred to be compared to Walt Whitman. At times, in fact, he seems to purposely borrow phrases from Whitman to invoke that comparison, though he often sound more like Wallace Stevens than Walt Whitman (though, to be fair, that may be merely because I just spent nearly a month reading Stevens).
I must admit that, like Louis Untermeyer, I am at times put off by Crane’s “artificiality of language, excitation of imagery, tenuous thoughts, obscurantism.” Though at its best Crane’s archaic language rivals Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” other times it seems just plain annoying and unnecessarily confusing.
Perhaps that explains why my two favorite poems in “White Buildings,” the opening section of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane are “Legend” and “Chaplinesque,” two straight-forward poems that explore Crane’s ambiguous attitude toward life. By invoking Whitman’s famous “eidolon” in “Legend,” Crane invariably invites comparison to Whitman’s transcendentalist vision of the world:
As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by . . .
I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. And tremorous
In the white falling flakes
The only worth all granting.
It is to be learned–
This cleaving and this burning,
But only by the one who
Spends out himself again.
Twice and twice
(Again the smoking souvenir,
Bleeding eidolon!) and yet again.
Until the bright logic is won
Unwhispering as a mirror
Then, drop by caustic drop, a perfect cry
Shall string some constant harmony,–
Relentless caper for all those who step
The legend of their youth into the noon.
Of course, Crane’s “Legend” is much darker than most of Whitman’s poetry. Here the idealistic dreamer is compared to the moth drawn toward the flame, an almost self-conscious reworking of the transcendentalist myth that challenges all who try to carry youth’s idealistic, romantic visions of life forward into the harsh “noon” of modern day existence. Realities invariably challenge any such view of the world.
This same confrontation of reality by the innocent can be seen even more clearly in “Chaplinesque,” that popular symbol of the innocent confronted by the harsh realities of the industrial age:
We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.
For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.
We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!
And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
There is something endearing, yet ulimately frightening, in Chaplin’s portrayal of modern man. Helpless in front of industrialization’s onslaught, the Chaplin character is still able to show sympathy for the abandoned kitten, this symbol within a symbol, for we too often feel helpless and lost. This portrayal of man as both victim and hero is an applealing one, suggesting our complicated view of ourselves.
Struggling to believe in an idealized world, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the cynicism that dominates 20th century life where the holy grail of legend seems to have been replaced by an “empty ash can,” and the mocking laughter of Eliot’s “the hollow men” awaits those with such idealistic aspirations.
On one hand, Chaplain’s little hobo probably held such wide appeal because many of us secretly want to be able to feel that sympathy for the helpless. This same soft spot is what makes Red in “That 70’s Show” a sympathetic character, though he’s much more apt to call his son “dumb ass” than to admit any affection for him. On the other hand, there is the opposing fear that it is precisely this “weakness” that will ultimately undermine us and lead to our downfall. Our cyncism is precisely what allows us to compete successfully in a world of competitors, while simultaneously cutting us off from the love of others that can sustain us in that struggle.
I must admit I find these simple poems strangely moving, perhaps because even now, at my advanced age, I still find myself torn between the idealist I want to be and the “realist” forced to make undesirable decisions in order to survive.