Harold Hart Crane (July 21, 1899 – April 27, 1932) was an American poet. Finding both inspiration and provocation in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Crane wrote poetry that was traditional in form, difficult and often archaic in language, and which sought to express something more than the ironic despair that Crane found in Eliot's poetry. Though frequently condemned as being difficult beyond comprehension, Crane has proved in the long run to be one of the most influential poets in English language of his generation.
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Hart Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio. His father, Clarence, was a successful Ohio businessman who had made his fortune in the candy business with chocolate bars. He originally held the patent for the Life Saver, but sold his interest to another businessman just before the candy became popular. Crane’s mother and father were constantly fighting, and early in April, 1917, they divorced. It was shortly thereafter that Hart dropped out of high school and headed to New York City. Between 1917 and 1924 he moved back and forth between New York and Cleveland, working as an advertising copywriter and a worker in his father’s factory. From Crane's letters, it appears that New York was where he felt most at home, and much of his poetry is set there.
Crane was gay and associated his sexuality with his vocation as a poet. Raised in the Christian Science tradition of his mother, he never ceased to view himself as a pariah in relation to society. However, as poems such as "Repose of Rivers" make clear, he felt that this sense of alienation was necessary in order for him to attain the visionary insight that formed the basis for his poetic work.
Throughout the early 1920s, small but well-respected literary magazines published some of Crane’s lyrics, gaining him, among the avant-garde, a respect that White Buildings (1926), his first volume, ratified and strengthened. White Buildings contains many of Crane’s best lyrics, including "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," and a powerful sequence of erotic poems called "Voyages," written while he was falling in love with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant mariner.
"Faustus and Helen" was part of a larger artistic struggle to meet modernity with something more than despair. Crane identified T. S. Eliot with that kind of despair, and while he acknowledged the greatness of The Waste Land, he also said it was "so damned dead," an impasse, and a refusal to see "certain spiritual events and possibilities." Crane’s self-appointed work would be to bring those spiritual events and possibilities to poetic life, and so create "a mystical synthesis of America." This ambition would finally issue in The Bridge (1930), where the Brooklyn Bridge is both the poem’s central symbol and its poetic starting point.
The Bridge received poor reviews for the most part, but much worse than that was Crane’s sense of failure. It was during the late '20s, while he was finishing The Bridge, that his drinking, always a problem, got notably worse.
While on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico in 1931-32, his drinking continued while he suffered from bouts of alternating depression and elation. His only heterosexual relationship - with Peggy Cowley, the soon to be ex-wife of his friend Malcolm Cowley, who joined Crane in the south when the Cowleys agreed to divorce - occurred here, and "The Broken Tower," one of his last published poems, emerges from that affair. Crane still felt himself a failure, though, in part because he recommenced homosexual activity despite his relationship with Cowley. Just before noon on 27 April 1932, while onboard the steamship SS Orizaba heading back to New York from Mexico - right after he was beaten up for making sexual advances to a male crew member, which may have appeared to confirm his idea that one could not be happy as a homosexual - he committed suicide by jumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Although he had been drinking heavily and left no suicide note, witnesses believed Crane's intentions to be suicidal, as several reported that he exclaimed "Goodbye, everybody!" before throwing himself overboard.
His body was never recovered. A marker on his father's tombstone in Garrettsville includes the inscription, "Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 LOST AT SEA".
Crane's critical effort - like Keats and Rilke - is most pronounced in his letters: he corresponded regularly with Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and Gorham Munson, and shared critical dialogues with Eugene O'Neill, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Burke, Waldo Frank, Harriet Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein.
Most serious work on Crane begins with his letters, selections of which are available in many editions of his poetry; his letters to Munson, Tate, Winters, and his patron, Otto Hermann Kahn, have been particularly valuable. Even his two most famous stylistic defenses emerged from correspondences: his Emersonian "General Aims and Theories" (1925) was written to urge Eugene O’Neill’s critical foreword to White Buildings, then passed around among friends, yet unpublished during Crane's life; and the famous "Letter to Harriet Monroe" (1926) was part of an exchange for the publication of "At Melville's Tomb" in Poetry.
The 'Logic of Metaphor'
As with Eliot's "objective correlative," a certain vocabulary haunts Crane criticism, his "logic of metaphor" being perhaps the most vexed. His most quoted formulation is in the circulated, if long unpublished, "General Aims and Theories":
As to technical considerations: the motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings. Via this and their metaphorical inter-relationships, the entire construction of the poem is raised on the organic principle of a 'logic of metaphor,' which antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension.
There is also some mention of it, though it is not so much presented as a critical neologism, in his letter to Harriet Monroe: "...The logic of metaphor is so organically entrenched in pure sensibility that it can't be thoroughly traced or explain outside of historical sciences, like philology and anthropology...."
L. S. Dembo's influential study of The Bridge, Hart Crane's Sanskrit Charge (1960), reads this 'logic' well within the familiar rhetoric of the Romantics:
The 'logic of metaphor' was simply the written form of the 'bright logic' of the imagination, the crucial sign stated, the Word made words.... As practiced, the logic of metaphor theory is reducible to a fairly simple linguistic principle: the symbolized meaning of an image takes precedence over its literal meaning; whether or not the vehicle of an image makes sense, the reader is expected to grasp its tenor.
The publication of White Buildings was delayed by Eugene O'Neill's struggle (and eventual failure) to articulate his appreciation for a foreword to it; and many critics since have used Crane's difficulty as an excuse for a quick dismissal. Even a young Tennessee Williams, then falling in love with Crane's poetry, could "hardly understand a single line--of course the individual lines aren't supposed to be intelligible. The message, if there actually is one, comes from the total effect....".
It was not lost on Crane, then, that his poetry was difficult. Some of his best, and practically only, essays originated as encouraging epistles: explications and stylistic apologies to editors, updates to his patron, and the variously well-considered or impulsive letters to his friends. It was, for instance, only the exchange with Harriet Monroe at Poetry when she initially refused to print "At Melville’s Tomb" that urged Crane to describe his "logic of metaphor" in print. But describe it he did, then complaining that:
If the poet is to be held completely to the already evolved and exploited sequences of imagery and logic--what field of added consciousness and increased perceptions (the actual province of poetry, if not lullabies) can be expected when one has to relatively return to the alphabet every breath or two? In the minds of people who have sensitively read, seen, and experienced a great deal, isn’t there a terminology something like short-hand as compared to usual description and dialectics, which the artist ought to be right in trusting as a reasonable connective agent toward fresh concepts, more inclusive evaluations?
Monroe was not impressed, though she acknowledged that others were, and printed the exchange alongside the poem: "You find me testing metaphors, and poetic concept in general, too much by logic, whereas I find you pushing logic to the limit in a painfully intellectual search for emotion, for poetic motive." In any case, Crane had a relatively well-developed rhetoric for the defense of his poems; here is an excerpt from "General Aims and Theories":
New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual articulation. ...the voice of the present, if it is to be known, must be caught at the risk of speaking in idioms and circumlocutions sometimes shocking to the scholar and historians of logic.
More recently, Allen Grossman has given a much respected guest lecture at the University of Chicago, "On communicative difficulty in general and 'difficult' poetry in particular: the example of Hart Crane's The Broken Tower."
The "Homosexual Text"
Recent criticism has pointed out that it is particularly difficult, perhaps even inappropriate, to read many of Crane's poems - "The Broken Tower," "My Grandmother’s Love Letters," the "Voyages" series, and so on - without a willingness to look for, and uncover, homosexual meanings in the text. Tim Dean argues, for instance, that the obscurity of Crane's style owes itself partially to the necessities of being a semi-public homosexual - not quite closeted, but also, as legally and culturally necessary, not open:
The intensity responsible for Crane’s particular form of difficulty involves not only linguistic considerations but also culturally subjective concerns. This intensity produces a kind of privacy that is comprehensible in terms of the cultural construction of homosexuality and its attendant institutions of privacy....
Thomas Yingling, arguing from a more essentialist viewpoint, articulates yet another problem with the traditional, New Critical and Eliotic readings of Crane, arguing that the "American myth criticism and formalist readings" have "depolarized and normalized our reading of American poetry, making any homosexual readings seem perverse." Even more than a personal or political problem, though, Yingling argues that such biases obscure much of what the poems make clear; see, for instance, the last lines of "My Grandmother's Love Letters" from White Buildings, a haunting description of estrangement from the norms of (heterosexual) family life:
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
And Brian Reed, an emerging critic of Crane deeply interested in Crane's homosexuality, has made contributions to a project of critical reintegration: though sympathetic, Reed notes that an overemphasis on the sexual biography of Crane's poetry can, of course, also be damaging to a broad appreciation. He has, on a less formal scale, also contributed a study of Crane's famous gay lyrical series, "Voyages," to the Poetry Foundation.
Crane has long been admired among poets, often passionately so. Some poet-critics have been ambivalent — one thinks of Yvor Winters’s famous turnabout, reviewing The Bridge in Poetry — but even the turnings-away have a tone of affectionate critique: Winters’s review grants Crane’s status of a "poet of genius" as a matter of course, even if he goes on to say that the poem augurs for a "public catastrophe." Indeed, Crane was admired, if sometimes cautiously, by much of the Greenwich Village and New England crowd: Allen Tate and Eugene O’Neill, of course, but also Kenneth Burke, Edmund Wilson, E. E. Cummings, and William Carlos Williams. And though some of his sharpest critics are well known — Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and a few others — Moore did publish his work, as did T. S. Eliot, who, moving even further out of Pound's sphere, may have borrowed some of Crane's imagery for Four Quartets.
Over the next two generations, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg read The Bridge together, John Berryman wrote him one of his famous elegies, and Robert Lowell published his "Words for Hart Crane" in Life Studies (1959): "Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age, / must lay his heart out for my bed and board." Perhaps most adoringly, Tennessee Williams wanted to be "given back to the sea" at the "point most nearly determined as the point at which Hart Crane gave himself back...". Also, one of Williams's last plays, a "ghost play" titled "Steps Must Be Gentle," found in Volume 6 of The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, explores Crane's relationship with his mother.
Such important affections have made Crane even more of a "poet’s poet," and much of Poet’s Bookshelf, a recent anthology of short, personal essays by contemporary poets, is marked through with debts to him. Thomas Lux offers, for instance: "If the devil came to me and said 'Tom, you can be dead and Hart can be alive,' I'd take the deal in a heartbeat if the devil promised, when arisen, Hart would have to go straight into A.A."
Beyond poetry, Crane's suicide inspired several works of art by noted artist Jasper Johns, including "Periscope" and "Diver," the "Symphony for Three Orchestras" by Elliott Carter (inspired by the "Bridge") and a painting by Marsden Hartley called "Eight Bells' Folly, Memorial for Hart Crane."