Crane’s Last Poems

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My favorite poem in the section entitled “Poems Unpublished by Crane” is: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 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:

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

Crane’s “The Broken Tower”

I find it somewhat unsettling that, despite the fact that I love Hart Crane’s poetic style that I seldom like his longer poems where the full expression of this style comes into play.

As noted earlier, it seems to me that his shorter poems written in the style of Emily Dickinson are more moving, less pretentious, and ultimately more believable, than those poems written in a Whitmanesque style. Once again, for me, at least, content outweighs style. What the poem says is more important than how it is said. And, most important of all is that air of “truth,” the same truth that Emily Dickinson equates with “beauty” in “I died for beauty,” that finally determines my reaction to a poem.

“The Broken Tower” is one of a few poems where style and content seemed to work for me. Ironically, perhaps, it is listed in The Complete Poems of Hart Crane as the last poem published by Hart Crane.

The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn”
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell”
Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn”
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.”

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps”
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway”
Antiphonal carillons launched before”
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?”

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;”
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave”
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score”
Of broken intervals … And I, their sexton slave!”

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping”
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!”
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-”
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain! …”

And so it was I entered the broken world”
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice”
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)”
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.”

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored”
Of that tribunal monarch of the air”
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word”
In wounds pledged once to hope – cleft to despair?”

The steep encroachments of my blood left me”
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower”
As flings the question true?) -or is it she”
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-”

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes”
My veins recall and add, revived and sure”
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:”
What I hold healed, original now, and pure …”

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone”
(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip”
Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown”
In azure circles, widening as they dip”

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes”
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…”
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky”
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Though I’m not entirely sure I completely understand the poem, like a blues song it carries a sense of sorrow and transcendence that is impossible to miss. Reminding me at once of the Metaphysical Poets, i.e. “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you” and of Gerard Manly Hopkins, the poem still manages to
be uniquely Hart Crane.

Perhaps it is the power of the image of the the Broken Tower, recalling Yeats’ use of the tower, that draws me to this poem for the Tower seems to symbolize a distant past or a strength long forgotten. As used here, it seems a powerful symbol of a lost God, a God the narrator desperately seeks but is unable to find. Instead of inspiring him to come to God, the bell tower “dispatches” him to wander from “pit to crucifix” exploring the “broken world” trying to “trace the visionary company of love,” sensing it for “an instant in the wind” but ultimately unable to find it.

The narrator seems unsure whether it his words, his crystal Word, his poetry, that could help him attain love or “she/ Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power.” Still, something, at least for the moment, helps him to build a tower, “not stone,” but a tower of “pebbles” that “lifts love in its shower.”

This fragile love is what most rings true in the poem, for love always seems tenuous, fleeting, threatening to destroy us, to leave us, or, perhaps worst of all, to silently erode to “habit.”

Crane’s “To Emily Dickinson”

Although Hart Crane was obviously inspired by Walt Whitman and aspired to receive Whitman’s mantle, it seems to me that he is most effective when inspired by Emily Dickinson rather than Whitman.

In a poem like “Cape Hatteras” Crane nearly attains Whitman’s style with lines like:

Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok — your lone patrol — and heard the wraith
Through surf, its bird note there a long time falling…
For you, the panoramas and this breed of towers,
Of you — the theme that’s statured in the cliff,
O Saunterer on free ways still ahead!


Our Meistersinger, thou set breath in steel;
And it was thou who on the boldest heel
Stood up and flung the span on even wing
Of that great Bridge, our Myth, wherof I sing!

and, finally,

Recorders ages hence, yes, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread
And read thee by the aureole ’round thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus!

Yes, Crane, like Sandburg and Roethke in his later poems, seems able to successfully capture Whitman’s style, though at times Crane’s use of archaic language seems forced and detracts from the meaning of the poem.

Ultimately, though, Crane seems unable to sustain Whitman’s vision, and, unfortunately, seems more convincing in earlier lines in “Cape Hatteras” like:

Dream cancels dream in this new realm of fact
From which we wake into the dream of act;
Seeing himself an atom in a shroud —
Man hears himself an engine in a cloud.

No matter how much he wants to believe in Whitman’s positive vision and reject Eliot’s modern wasteland, he seems unable to sustain that belief in his poetry. Perhaps his dedication to poetry demanded a dedication to truth that would not allow him to sustain’s Whitman’s vision.

For me, at least, Crane’s smaller poems, poems where he seems to mirror Emily Dickinson’s simultaneous optimism and regret, are often his most convincing poems:


You who desired so much–in vain to ask–
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest–
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,

Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;

–Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind–

Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill.

Crane, like Dickinson, believes in, and “desired so much,” the kind of joy that Emerson and Whitman could celebrate in such joyous terms, yet both seemed to do so “in vain.” Although they “bless the quest” of poetry, neither found the personal joy in life or received, at least in their lifetime, the fame they probably deserved.

Crane envisions Emily as passing through eternity cradling a beauty, the beauty of poetry, obviously, in her hands that never withers. Her poetry is a greater treasure than the philosopher’s stone or the finest gold.

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

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