Roaring Boy

Adam Phillips

  • The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani
    Norton, 492 pp, US $35.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 393 04726 1
  • O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane edited by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber
    Four Walls Eight Windows, 562 pp, US $35.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 941423 18 2

In so far as there was a shared response to Hart Crane’s poetry after his suicide in 1932, it took the form of invidious comparisons. ‘Crane had the sensibility typical of Baudelaire,’ R.P. Blackmur wrote in 1935, ‘and so misunderstood himself that he attempted to write The Bridge as if he had the sensibility typical of Whitman.’ Dylan Thomas’s poems, Randall Jarrell wrote in 1940, ‘often mean much less than Crane’s – but when you consider Crane’s meanings this is not altogether a disadvantage’. And whether he was thought to be confused and self-deceiving, or vacuous, or even crazy, Crane was such a troubling figure, both before and after his early death, that people were inclined to describe his poetry in a way that cast aspersions on his character; as though such unapproachable poems could only be approached biographically. Comparing Crane’s ‘epics’ with Zukofsky’s, Hugh Kenner wrote, in his once canonical The Pound Era: ‘The Bridge yields only to nutcrackers, “A” to reading.’ There was certainly something that Crane’s poems wouldn’t let you do to them.

Crane produced two prodigious books of poetry, White Buildings (1926) and The Bridge (1930), and died at the age of 33 by jumping off a ship bound for New York. After such a brief life and dramatic death he seemed like the very stuff of poetic legend, a Chatterton-and-Rimbaud of his time. He was a famous drunk, he was homosexual (and occasionally heterosexual), and he was definitely either a fraud or a genius. There was also something about him that made people excessive in their reactions to him; and the people who knew him and the people who took against his poetry seem wittingly or unwittingly to have acknowledged this. So the kinds of point his early critics wanted to make (or score) were often at Crane’s expense, as though his authenticity or his sanity were being assessed from some much more assured moral ground. If, as his friend and enemy Yvor Winters said, Crane was ‘a saint of the wrong religion’, he also confirmed other people in the rightness of their own devotions. What Mariani’s useful and interesting new biography shows most clearly is the stir he created around him: the turbulence his poetry caused in the few people who were attentive to it, and the havoc wrought among his friends and lovers.

Critics trying to find the comparison, invidious or otherwise, that would illuminate Crane’s often baffling poetic progress were only doing what he himself seems to have spent his life doing. The not knowing who (or what) he was like turned into a passionate, but mostly solitary quest for literary affinities. ‘The Aeneid was not written in two years – nor in four,’ Crane wrote to his patron Otto Kahn, ‘and in more than one sense I feel justified in comparing the historical and cultural scope of The Bridge to that great work.’ Whether he was used by poets and critics alike to represent the more disabling trends of what became known as Modernism – portentous ambition, impenetrable allusiveness, a programmatic resistance to being easily read – or the perils of styling oneself a poetic visionary, he always exerted a peculiar fascination. But it has never been quite clear whether his extraordinarily subtle and stagey poems are about something (let alone everything, as he sometimes claimed) or about anything other than his often expressed wish to be a great visionary poet, to join the ‘visionary company’. Reading Crane – like reading Lowell, or Berryman, or Plath, among many others for whom Crane is crucial – one is never sure whether ambition is doing the work of the imagination, or whether ambition is the work of the imagination. This is the dilemma that makes American poetry of this century so exhilarating. Crane’s need to be a great visionary American poet – which for him meant, essentially, to be the alternative to Eliot – is what the poetry is about. ‘New thresholds, new anatomies!’ he declaims in his poem ‘Wine Menagerie’, as though one might be able to go for both.

The brevity of Crane’s life has made his biographers keen to be inclusive, if nothing else. His 32 years inspired an 800-page ‘immensely researched life’ (Mariani’s words) from John Unterecker. But that was 30 years ago. Since then, Mariani tells us, ‘new readings and new information have both become available, giving us further access to Crane’s brilliant, multifoliate world.’ Mariani has managed to keep Crane’s world to just under 500 pages; and though his book is not dull as Unterecker’s is, it nevertheless strains to find just what might be telling about Crane’s enigmatic life. Most modern biographies are too long either because modern lives are uniquely well documented, or because there is now a pervasive uncertainty about the plotting of lives. Crane’s biographers begin with the hermeticism of his poetry, and the necessary secrecy of his homosexuality. A lot of letters are now available – correspondence with his family and with Yvor Winters has been published, in addition to the present brilliant selection – but, unsurprisingly, they offer neither a straightforward commentary on the poems nor an unambiguous documentary of his day-to-day life.

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