On Douglas Crase

Matthew Bevis

‘The most interesting book of first poems in many years’, Richard Howard proclaimed in 1981. James Merrill, John Hollander and John Ashbery spoke in similarly emphatic terms, while Anthony Hecht saluted an ‘extraordinarily fine’ debut and Harold Bloom hailed the arrival of a great original. ‘I think I speak for many,’ David Kalstone wrote, ‘in saying it appeared with that sense of completeness of utterance and identity that must have come with the first books of Wallace Stevens (Harmonium) and Elizabeth Bishop (North and South).’ The book they were talking about was Douglas Crase’s The Revisionist. Out of print for almost forty years, it has now been reissued (Carcanet, £12.99) in a volume that also includes Crase’s only other collection of verse – a slim chapbook, The Astropastorals, first published in 2017. One may well wonder what Crase was doing in those intervening decades.

Among other things, he was writing essays and books of non-fiction. Lines from London Terrace, published last year, brings together a range of his pieces on literature, painting and culture (Pressed Wafer, £12). Writing about Marianne Moore’s ‘so-called prose’ in 1986, Crase said that her writings ‘don’t offer recipes that explain poetry so much as they offer further examples of what goes on during poetry’. His essays do the same thing. They’re more like events than explications – compound forms of testimony and searching. For Crase, Emerson is the tutelary spirit who invented what he calls ‘the prose-hidden poem’. ‘There is no book,’ he rightly observes, ‘not even Leaves of Grass, that is closer to the source of our poetry than Emerson’s Essays. For American poetry, this prose is home.’

The meaning of home – inhabited or imagined, shared or secluded – is Crase’s most persistent subject, and home is a place in which to experiment. It plays host to some unlikely double acts, with the ‘sentency stanzas’ of Robert Frost found alongside the ‘stanzaic sentences’ of Gertrude Stein, and it stretches from Whitman to Ashbery, both innovators in poetical-paragraphical style – ‘big blocks of words, prosy chunks that in the sequential and cumulative effects can be sized up as kin to paragraphs’. Emerson’s view that ‘it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem’ is echoed in Ashbery’s claim that Crase writes ‘supple argumentative poetry’. Those adjectives don’t usually go together, but here they are just right. When, in ‘Dining Out with Doug and Frank’, James Schuyler noted that ‘Doug (Douglas Crase, the poet)/had to work (he makes his bread/writing speeches),’ he was making a distinction without proscribing a relation. Although Crase’s poems are never hectoring, they are not afraid to say ‘The thing is …’, or ‘In fact …’, or to use a word like ‘Thus’. He has spoken of ‘the “civil metre” of American English’, the metre one hears in public speeches; if you write in this metre, ‘it’s true you have to give up the Newtonian certainties of the iamb. But you gain a stronger metaphor for conviction.’ Apprehension of this movement as metaphor contributes to the suppleness of Crase’s argufying. His essays, like his poems, seek embodiment as persuasion, or as suasion (that word is somehow less insistent), by remaining open to conviction – and to the ways in which conviction consorts with desire.

The title poem of The Revisionist shapes an address to the nation as though it were whispering in a lover’s ear. And then there is Crase’s essay on Lorine Niedecker, which extends a premise of his work in the act of seizing on something vital in hers: ‘Then as now, the problem for a bard of the commonwealth was this: you have to believe that your country wants you, just as it spurs desire if your partner feels it too … In “Lake Superior” you can almost feel the land wanting you again, feel the reciprocal desire to make poetry from unmediated contact with matter.’

For Crase, desire is a way of starting again, if not quite starting anew, and it enjoins another longing, or hope: that your strongest attachments needn’t be your most appropriative ones. He dreams – sometimes rhapsodically, at other times ruefully – of acquisition without possession, and the work he adores lives this dream as a kind of calling (‘Anybody knows,’ Stein wrote, ‘how anybody calls out the name of anybody one loves’). The call lends itself to modulated recitation, to ‘new ways of saying it, in the fervent desire to reinvent its effect’. In his poems, this impulse is felt in subtle distractions of syntax. In his essays, it’s present in his dalliances with apophthegm: ‘Much of art is the struggle to make emotion less embarrassing’; or ‘Poetry is replacing the name that no longer does justice to desire’; or ‘Desire may even equal just that percentage of things we feel as yet to be unspoke.’

Crase knows that any last words on such matters are always only first words. Lyrical deliquescence and prose declamation join forces in ‘The House at Sagg’, in which the drama of making – not simply having – your experience becomes a parable about space:

The way the physical things add up,
The plain practical shapes of them derive
A mounting architecture in which the minutes
Reach for footing, solid enough
To hold them down. Our bodies, of course, but also
The space they agitate in a just right bed,
The doorways that make you stoop and the ones that don’t,
The advantages of a sunken living room:
These things push the living in or out of shape
And, like the climber rose on the trellis,
It longs to contend with them. The simple things
(The heat of the water in the tap) exist,
And in their measurements is a way for the living

To emulate their still extent. Properly put together,
The things we touch are announced in the ones we do:
The driveway, built of pebbles, rattles accordance
With how and how often it’s disturbed. Beautiful,
Our actions depend on finding their objects
And growing around them
Until one or the other is forced to bloom.

The sense you get of a speaker who knows what he wants to say, but whose mode of knowing is gradually to feel his way, is characteristic of Crase. Itself a physical thing, the poem may well ‘add up’, may turn accretion into achievement, but the voice that seeks a consummation of consciousness by building a home for itself leaves room for surprise: in the reach of ‘agitate’ in a line of spruce monosyllables, for example, or in the wonder he gets into the word ‘exist’ after the parenthesis. And then there’s the unashamedness of ‘Beautiful’, poised at the line end, speaking of both curiosity and recognition, awe and assurance.

Crase’s poetics of ‘still extent’, of finding and growing, are related to his understanding that a self is never a self on its own (as he writes elsewhere, ‘To know the place you have to disturb it/With your touch’). Although he often dwells on the way things come together or come good, the activity or motion of his writing is centrifugal. Wherever he apprehends a ‘spirit of Place’, he is likely to be wondering: ‘if it’s here, what’s it residing in?’ In keeping with the drift of that question, Crase’s ‘it’ is often in search of a little essayistic latitude. Another poem in The Revisionist, ‘Life in a Small Neighbourhood’, ends like this:

In action it is the review of what it knows,
A review of process and due possibility,
Preceding its palace of results. A palace
Where life had been possible, as it turns out.

The equanimity of the last phrase doesn’t preclude a wish to renovate feeling by taking everyday words to new places. Immanence breeds imminence, for the soft-spoken, almost diffident pun here acts as a revisioning of the spatial and temporal: as it turns out, it turns outwards.

Crase has spoken of a ‘sense of movement continuously filling its space of time’, and, in both essay and lyric, time is relatively short. Both modes thrive on the resonance that comes from restriction, which suggests one reason Crase is drawn to metonymy as a figure for what art can do. His essays enjoy being tacit, refusing to spell things out (I’m thinking of moments like his passing reference to ‘the tired thrill of distrust’, and of his take on Bergson’s conception of la durée: ‘rather too beguiling, like finding out there really is an eternity’). His disabused yet ungrudging intelligence resembles the fond dismay he admires in Dwight Ripley’s drawings: ‘It is humour characterised by a combination of affection and frolic foreboding, and its non-frivolous message is that we don’t even see without prior advantage of wit.’ The spirit of this insight – from Crase’s book Both: A Portrait in Two Parts (2004) – permeates Lines from London Terrace. His own versions of pastoral are not naive (the river that runs a mile west of Emerson’s woods, he reminds us, now takes up an outflow of ‘mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, trichloroethylene, nitrobenzene and chlorinated benzenes’), nor are they merely knowing. The ‘as is’ rarely commands undisputed rule over the ‘as if’. In less capable hands, a study entitled ‘The Pyrrhic Measure in American Poetry’, which meditates on the value of the unaccented syllable as a means of discussing the way ‘the creative implications of choice can emerge almost as palpably as things,’ risks being self-indulgent or specious. Yet the essay is one of the most bracing, thoughtful things in the book. This is a commitment to style as a form of cultural energy, inquiry and bequest.

The custodial instinct in Crase’s work finds its strongest expression as a mode of encouragement. Like the critic and Emerson scholar Richard Poirier, on whom he writes well, Crase realises that ‘somehow, genius must pleasurably decline to comply,’ and the pleasure he gives and takes comes from a devotion to two imperatives: Emerson’s ‘do your thing’ and Poirier’s ‘Let the experience be perplexing.’ Crase warms to a kind of daring that is also a kind of responsibility. In the preface to AMERFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book (1996), he noted that he only included entries on ‘writers who had truly claimed me … those whose words had arrived uninterruptably once as fate, or puberty’. The acute impetuosity of that comparison lives on in the final paragraph of Lines from London Terrace, where he mulls over the success of Donald Britton’s posthumously published poems alongside ‘the undeniable failure in worldly terms of his career’. Given Crase’s own resistance to careerism, one senses how much is at stake: ‘Someday, a critic will do us the service of disentangling poetry from the standard map of a professional career. The map is a convenience to committees, but meaningless to the future reader – the 12-year-old boy or girl in San Angelo – the very reader poets must hope to have.’ Britton grew up in San Angelo, so Crase’s last call travels in two directions – towards a person Britton could have once been, and towards those to whom he might yet speak. The poet, in longing to arrive at himself, keeps looking elsewhere. Here Crase’s hope is reminiscent of the counsel he takes to heart from Ashbery’s ‘The New Spirit’: ‘We must learn to live in others … they create us.’ Whomever Crase is writing for, I hope someone in San Angelo is reading him.