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.

‘He did so much that was outrageous, but so much that was unaffectedly kind or exuberant and so much that kept us entertained,’ Malcolm Cowley wrote. ‘Nobody yawned when Hart was about.’ It was Crane’s determination in virtually everything he wrote that there would be no yawning; his dread of the dull quotidian, of the ordinary as a form of corruption, fired his writing. It was a more fortunate Fall he was after in his idiosyncratic theology, to counter the smug pessimism of what he calls, as if for emphasis, Eliot’s The Waste Lands. In his first great poem, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, it is clear that he knows what he wants – ‘Brazen hypnotics glitter here’ – which necessarily involves Faustianly not quite knowing what he is doing:

Greet naively – yet intrepidly
New soothings, new amazements
That cornets introduce at every turn –
And you may fall downstairs with me
With perfect grace and equanimity.

Crane may be trying to tell us how we should read him, but the instructions are strewn with necessary impossibilities. To do anything with deliberate naivety already entails too much knowledge; a fall with grace that is a fall from grace is hard to conjure. ‘You may’ is poised between permission and good fortune. And yet the quest for ‘New soothings, new amazements’, linked to the drunk’s wish to fall downstairs with equanimity, is magnificent visionary clowning. Crane, who met Chaplin, and wrote a good poem about him, saw more clearly than many of his contemporaries (and most of his critics) the burlesque in all grandiose ambition: ‘We have (I cannot be too sure of this for my own satisfaction) in Chaplin a dramatic genius that truly approaches the fabulous sort ... I am moved to put Chaplin with the poets of today.’ Grace, in its perfect and imperfect forms – as manners and divine election, as revelation and poise – was one of Crane’s most urgent preoccupations. It was also, not incidentally, his mother’s name. ‘I’m not going to make it, dear ... I’m utterly disgraced’ were virtually his last words, spoken to his lover, Peggy Cowley (Malcolm Cowley’s about to be ex-wife).

Like most boys, Crane was a mother’s boy, and Mariani’s book is excellent on Crane’s parents – informative and evocative about their disparate histories, and how they clashed – but less convincing, or less subtle, about what Crane made of them. Just how and why his project emerged from (out of?) the terrible scenes between the parents seems worth more thought than Mariani is prepared to give it. Biographers inevitably find it difficult to convey just how enigmatic parents are to children, with the result that we frequently assume the existence of some quite straightforward causal connection between what the parents were supposedly like, and how the boy turned out. But if biography tends to over-personalise the work by apparently providing it with a set of easy-to-use, ready-made referents, at its best it can show us how people went about finding, or not finding, what they needed to become who they thought they were, or wanted to be. Mariani provides a strong chronological narrative but he is wary of certain kinds of speculation about Crane’s affinities and aversions. In Crane’s life, which was so much a writing life, there is furtiveness everywhere, and not always for the obvious reason. The very real danger of being exposed as gay and the very real wish to be an entirely original poet were so essential to Crane’s sense of himself that they can begin to seem too important, at the cost of so much else. After all, the wish for concealment has to look for its occasions, the need to hide needs opportunities to perform itself.

The opening lines of Crane’s first poem in White Buildings, his first book, can be seen, in retrospect, to announce a project. The poem, aptly entitled ‘Legend’, begins with a two-line stanza:

As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by ...

In a mirror, as in a dream, things are seen without attendant explanation, without legend; we are shown something and told nothing. If ‘plunge’ captures in some uncanny way the shallow depths of the mirror, it is also the first of many fateful images of falling and jumping and dropping down that would be enacted at his death. It is a characteristically condensed version of a traditional poetic image, but it insists on the unspoken in what is so vividly seen. Crane’s poetic legend of himself will be like a dumb-show in which things and people – ‘realities’ – will keep disappearing without being able to announce themselves. His poetry, for all its self-professed grandeur and self-confessing bathos, is always telling us that there are things he wants to hide, and that the hiding is as important as what is hidden. ‘Frankly,’ he writes to a friend, ‘I admit to a taste for certain affectations and ornamental commissions.’ He was as frank as he could be about his artful concealments.

His extensive correspondence with his family (just over 650 pages of letters to his mother, father and maternal grandmother), taken together with Mariani’s gruelling account of the parents’ marriage, makes it quite clear why he needed his sophisticated forms of privacy. And also why he might have felt a powerful affinity with the legacy of Emerson and Whitman that would counsel him not to be daunted or overimpressed by the past, or doomed by an inheritance. There was, Crane wrote, ‘nothing but illness and mental disorder in my family’, and these were things his poetry wanted neither to disown nor to be stifled by. Poetry would inevitably refer to the past – both personal and cultural – but it would not defer to it. ‘Forgive me for an echo of these things,’ he wrote in his poem ‘Recitative’, ‘And let us walk through time with equal pride.’ His poetry, which he seemed quite literally to live for, would restore him – ‘In sapphire arenas of the hills/I was promised an improved infancy’ – and renew America: The Bridge was to be his ‘mystical synthesis of America’. But his pride had been plunged in his family’s shame, and his country, sliding, as he saw it, towards a trivial and tawdry materialism, failed to keep its promise. Indeed, family and country were complicit with each other and he felt he was drowning. ‘Unless I isolate myself (and pretty soon) from the avalanche of bitterness and wailing that has flooded me ever since I was seven years old,’ he wrote to a friend in 1926, ‘there won’t be enough left of me even to breathe, not to mention writing.’ He was a victim, he believed, of a kind of cosmic catastrophe.

‘Immaculate venom binds,’ Crane wrote in an early poem. There are couples everywhere in his poetry, and most of them don’t get on. ‘For the moth/Bends no more than the still/Imploring flame.’ The unhappy wife and mother endlessly implored; the husband wouldn’t bend to wife or son, and eventually left; and the son seems to have been both moth and flame (there had been suicide attempts before he finally succeeded; and the last five years of his life were like a slow suicide). Crane seems to have allied himself, in the traditional way, with his mother, while all the time furtively seeking out his father’s regard. It is difficult to tell quite how the conspiracies worked. He tends to represent himself as persecuted by his mother’s needs, and by his feelings for her; and abandoned by his father to be her life-support system. What makes the story at once intriguing and unsatisfying is that it tends towards allegory. Mother as hysterical muse, encouraging the boy to be an ‘artist’ while the two of them drowned in their feelings for each other; indeed, getting the boy to change his name, once he becomes a poet, to Hart (her maiden name) Crane, from Harold Hart Crane, giving him a stage-name, so to speak, that is the starkest combination of his parents. And father as capitalist – creator of ‘the largest maple syrup business of its kind in the world’, inventor of the Lifesaver, and a successful and then failed chocolate manufacturer – not duly impressed either by his son’s poetic ambitions or by his description of himself as ‘the incarnation of love’s entrapment’, encouraging the boy to get a real job. ‘You don’t seem to have enough of the earnest side of life,’ Crane’s father writes to him after yet another request for cash. ‘People may laugh at your jokes, they may regard you as a prodigy; they may occasionally buy a book,’ but ‘sooner or later your affections are expressed in beefsteaks.’ Whatever else you do, you have to eat and provide. There is wit in this, and in its unglamorous truth-telling it gets a measure of his son. One of the very real successes of Mariani’s book is that it captures something of the poignancy of Crane’s defeated and devoted relationship with his father. But by the same token very little is seen – or seen sympathetically – from the mother’s point of view. Whether because the nature of the available material dictates it, or because that is how Mariani frames the story, Crane’s mother comes across as at best an invalid. What was so good about Mariani’s biography of Berryman was that he let us see what Berryman could also have loved and admired about his mother. Biography should be a refuge from the scapegoating of parents.

The dumbing down of the mother sometimes makes Crane seem too glibly the ‘product’ of his family; inevitably gay and unavoidably the saboteur of his own professional prospects. Mariani’s account is not, it should be said, schematic in this way; but because he so scrupulously under-explains how Crane became the man he did, he implicitly reinforces our most general assumptions. Biographies should theorise themselves (if they have to) to counter the taken-for-granted descriptions, the psychologising, that make lives all sound more or less the same. ‘Crane’s life,’ Mariani writes, ‘reads like a great Greek tragedy, and I have tried to capture something of the meteoric rise and fall of this brilliant and tragic poet’; but what also needs to be shown is what Crane’s choices looked like, and what actually looked like a choice to Crane. The biographer, in other words, needs to take advantage of the fact that he has more choices, when it comes to the telling of the life-story, than his subject did.

To write the life of someone who dreaded being caught (Crane himself spoke of his ‘slippery scale-of-the-fish, continual escape attitude’) but at the same time craved recognition – for his poetry, for the values his elusiveness embodied – is a project already ironised. In cruising the New York docks for sailors, as in his will to absolute originality, Crane was, by definition, trying to exempt himself from conventional definition. It was the same with his writing: ‘If my work seems needlessly sophisticated,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘it is because I am only interested in adding what seems to me something really new to what has been written.’ He demands a lot of his biographer because he wants to be seen hiding; because he suffers from and relishes what he calls ‘the love of things irreconcilable’. ‘I admit,’ he writes in one of the many admissions he allows in his letters, ‘to a slight leaning toward the esoteric, and am perhaps not to be taken seriously.’ For ‘taken seriously’ read: ‘taken in any of the usual ways’. When you read Crane’s letters and poems, the phrase ‘the erotics of style’ makes a kind of sense.

In a way Crane’s life is the familiar life of the modern poet: an attempt to transform childhood unhappiness into literary success. He was born in Garrettsville, Ohio in 1899 to parents who were, as the editors of the letters put it, ‘prosperous, ambitious and ill-matched’. The family moved to Cleveland, as his father’s business became increasingly successful, and the couple divorced when Crane was 17, after a torrid and frustrating marriage. As a boy growing up Crane was the over-exposed witness, audience and accomplice of this terrible drama. Whether or not, as the editors say, ‘the divorce ... wounded their only child and propelled him into poetry,’ it certainly seems to have propelled him into an eternal restlessness. At 17 he left school and family for New York, and his brief life of homelessness and intense poetic ambition began. Mariani is very good on Crane’s desire, rather than love, for New York; in the city, he could be anonymous and sexually alive. But what he couldn’t do was hold down a job. He wrote advertising copy, but the economic depression of the times conspired with his loathing for the work. So he would sabotage jobs, in order to write, cadge jobs and money from his father and from his friends, and be forever moving around; from Cleveland, to New York, to Upper New York State, to Cuba (where his mother’s family had land), to Europe, to New York and eventually to Mexico, where his fraught and harassed life finally unravelled in alcohol and violence. He became obsessed with ‘primitive’ Mexican culture, and had his first sustained affair with a woman.

In this feverish escapade of a life Crane made and broke important literary friendships with, most significantly, the poet-critics Allen Tate and Yvor Winters. But despite his evident charm, there was something about him that people found impossible, and even towards the end, intimidating. Menace and amusement seemed to be coupled inside him (‘The everlasting eyes of Pierrot/And, of Gargantua, the laughter’): a kind of demonic self-defeated trickiness that disturbed people. ‘He did not even hate us,’ Katherine Anne Porter wrote when Crane visited her and her husband and got resentfully drunk, ‘for we were nothing to him. He hated and feared himself.’ He found patrons to back and publish his strange poetry, and as Mariani shows, he could inspire extreme affection in people. But too soon they would feel, as William Carlos Williams wrote, ‘uncomfortable’ with his ‘roaring boy, predatory reputation’. It seemed that nothing could contain him, except his poetry. So when the poetry stopped, in a very real sense he had nowhere to go.

Like the visionary company that he emulated (but also joined), Crane was determinedly self-educated, which is as close as one can get to being self-invented. He left school as soon as possible, and as Mariani points out with some relish, never went near a university. One of the fascinations of Mariani’s book is the idiosyncrasy of Crane’s reading life: Donne, Webster, Marlowe, Laforgue (Eliot’s reading list); a passion for Vaughan, Traherne, Blake, Whitman; an immediate recognition of Stevens as the great contemporary poet. For all the frenzy and despondency of his life there was always the surety of his reading; and his sense that the reading was for the writing. The cogency of the personal aesthetic that he made up out of the vagaries of his erotic life and what he calls ‘the whirlwind hysterics of Fate (if one may allude to one’s family in that way)’ comes across very strongly in the letters, as does his sense that there were obscure connections between what he and his family had been through, the boom-and-bust capitalism of America in the Twenties, and the cult of Eliot’s wasteland sensibility. A break had to be made. ‘The poetry of negation is beautiful,’ Crane writes to his friend Gorham Munson in 1922,

alas, too dangerously so for one of my mind. But I am trying to break away from it. Perhaps this is useless, perhaps it is silly – but one does have joys. The vocabulary of damnations and prostrations has been developed at the expense of these other moods, however, so that it is hard to dance in proper measure. Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive.

As with most writers, the relationship between what Crane wanted and believed, and what he did was unstable. But he was quick to see the all too stable complacency (and complicity) of Eliot’s glooms. Like most visionaries, he wanted to rhyme ecstasy with justice. It is perhaps a sign of the times that he has become more and more our contemporary as he is read less and less.