HART CRANE Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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Harold Hart Crane ("Hart" was his mother’s maiden name) was born in                               
Garrettsville, Ohio, near Cleveland in 1899 and committed suicide by leaping                     
from the deck of the S. S. Orizaba somewhere off the Florida coast just before                   
noon on April 26, 1932.                                                                           
His education was informal. He never completed his final year of high school,                     
but at the age of 17 persuaded his recently-divorced parents to let him live in                   
New York City to prepare for college. From 1917 to 1924, he shifted back and                     
forth between Cleveland and New York, briefly working in Cleveland as a cub                       
reporter, but more often as a menial in his father’s candy factory, and in New                   
York as a copywriter for mail order catalogues and advertising agencies. He                       
lived an unsettled life, in and out of apartments and rooms in New York City,                     
and in southern Connecticut sharing farmhouses with friends. Most of the poems                   
in The Bridge – many of them depicting New York City with a vibrancy that was                     
rare in poetry – were written on the Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba where                   
his family owned a vacation cottage. When he found himself unable to complete                     
The Bridge, he sought inspiration by traveling to Europe, and when he was                         
awarded a Guggenheim in 1931, he temporarily settled in Mexico.                                   
Crane was sensitive to the problem of uprootedness. This became a subject in his                 
own poetry: the history in his American epic centers primarily on various                         
technological breakthroughs – clipper ship, train, subway, airplane – that, he                   
might have said, create an illusion of conquering space by speeding up the                       
consumption of time. But the issue was more personal; it stemmed from his                         
position as a gay male in a culture that was largely homophobic. He understood                   
that he was a homosexual after an affair in 1919 in Akron, Ohio, where he was                     
employed as a clerk in one of his father’s candy stores. In the spring of 1924,                   
he met Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser. With him, an emotional relationship                         
developed in which Crane was intensely engaged. (The six poems entitled Voyages                   
were fashioned as an extraordinary souvenir of their temporary union.) Crane                     
never found a single partner with whom to share his life, and after Opffer, he                   
may have felt such a partner could never be found. His affairs were temporary,                   
mostly anonymous, and sometimes violent; he apparently never sought out sexual                   
companionship among members of the New York artistic community. Late in his                       
brief life, when living in Mexico in 1931 and 1932, he entered into a                             
heterosexual liaison with Peggy Baird, the former wife of a close friend,                         
Malcolm Cowley. With her, there had been discussion of marriage and a new                         
All in all, Crane lived a tumultuous life, a life reflected in what one critic                   
disparagingly called his "Rube Goldberg rhetoric." Maturing in a time when an                     
astonishing range of poetic styles were competing with each other for ascendancy,                 
Crane as an apprentice poet seems to have sampled one and all. The early poems                   
that open his first collection, White Buildings (1926), are a veritable taxonomy                 
of the options open to a young poet eager to learn to write in a modern style.                   
There is the Eliotic ennui of "Modern Craft," and the sumptuous imagism of "October-November."   
Gusto of a Poundian sort breaks out from the solemn quatrains of "Praise for an                   
Urn" and the children in "Poster" (the opening of "Voyages I") step out of a                     
Wallace Stevens seascape. Unpublished poems from the same time expose imitations                 
of E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams. Crane forged his own unbelievably                 
idiosyncratic style out of an impossible melange of influences, making the very                   
negotiation of potentially-divisive conflicting registers the astonishing                         
tightrope-walk of the poem.                                                                       
According to Lincoln Kirstein, E. E. Cummings claimed that "Crane’s mind was no                   
bigger than a pin, but it didn’t matter; he was a born poet." Crane’s mature                     
poetry was written over a meteorically-brief period, from the spring of 1924                     
until the fall of 1926, and it was intensely performative. If it was short on                     
intellectual conception, it was long on linguistic feats that sought to                           
duplicate an experience as it was unfolding. If Crane had attempted only to be                   
celebratory, he would have endured, perhaps, as a minor poet, an American                         
Swinburne. But Crane also came of age at a time when poets found themselves                       
thinking as critics, extending the range of their own poetry to include "unpoetic"               
analytical meditations. Some of his closest friends were the young men who would                 
go on to invent the new criticism – Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Burke –                     
all of whom saw themselves, in those early years of their lives, first as poets.                 
Crane’s letters are filled with remarkably astute observations about what might                   
be possible in the future for poetry, and in an exchange with Harriet Monroe, he                 
mounted a strong defense of one of his own works, "At Melville’s Tomb,"                           
detailing what he called a "logic of metaphor" that was unfolding within and                     
below the poem’s linguistic surface, as a product of the interplay of the                         
connotations of words. Few other poets, in 1925, could have been so eloquent                     
about what they hoped to achieve. In his mature style, in works such as Voyages,                 
"The Wine Menagerie," "O Carib Isle!," and (from The Bridge) "Proem: To Brooklyn                 
Bridge," "The Harbor Dawn," "Cutty Sark," and "The Tunnel," Crane masterfully                     
uses variations in rhythm and syntax to establish a powerful, nearly invisible                   
foundation that provides a dynamic forward movement to a poetic line that is                     
bristling with significance, its diction drawn from virtually dozens of                           
conflicting and overlapping registers.                                                           
Like other young poets, Crane admired what Eliot had achieved by broadening the                   
scope of what could be treated within a poem, but he deplored what he saw as                     
Eliot’s pessimism. Soon after "The Waste Land" appeared in 1922, Crane wrote his                 
own response, the naïve and jejune "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1923).               
Something more was needed, and Crane embarked on a plan to write an extended                     
poem, a symphonic epic, that would be a "mystic synthesis of America." Eliot                     
took a stand against the present, it seemed to Crane. By contrast, Crane’s poem                   
would properly evaluate the machine, locating a place for it in the present,                     
judging both its good and bad elements. But the poem stalled. Crane had written                   
its final section, a celebration of the exalted feelings the poet was                             
experiencing as he looked over the modern city and found it transformed by the                   
sensational new descriptions that had emanated from his poems – none of which,                   
with the exception of this congratulatory finale, he had yet conceived how to                     
write. Meanwhile, as he pondered how to write the individual sections that would                 
justify his optimistic finale, Crane worked through shorter pieces, occasioned                   
by incidents in his life, each of which took him further toward creating a style                 
that aimed to synthesize with accuracy unusually complex states of thought. In                   
his 1947 preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, William                       
Empson expressed regret at not focusing more attention on the last "type," "the                   
poetry of straightforward mental conflict": "I had not read Hart Crane when I                     
published the book, and I had had the chance to do so." As Empson suggests,                       
Crane tracked with a completeness heretofore inconceivable even minute                           
gradations in experience, both intellectual and emotional at once. In "The Wine                   
Menagerie," he is capable of registering a simultaneous pull toward and                           
resistance to a particular event. Voyages ends in a bittersweet valedictory that                 
both offers and resists closure, that understands that a love affair is over                     
even as it affirms the affair will never be forgotten.                                           
As Crane postponed work on his epic poem and composed these new lyrics, rather                   
than resolving his problems with The Bridge he only exacerbated them: the new                     
technical achievement he was developing outstripped his plans for what he                         
thought to include in the subject-matter in his epic of America. When a loan                     
from the financier Otto Kahn (whose own son, Roger Wolfe Kahn, had achieved his                   
fame by leading one of the most successful dance bands of the 1920s) freed Crane                 
to work entirely on his long poem, nothing in the rather conventional outline he                 
had developed spurred him on to write. In his 1925 autobiographical poem "Passage"               
the speaker at one point returned to a territory (that may have represented an                   
earlier point in his life) only to find the site almost unrecognizably overtaken                 
with wildly proliferating growth. Something similar must have seemed to be                       
happening to him when he turned back to The Bridge. To write the lyrics of                       
emotional and intellectual intensity of 1924 and 1925, he had developed an                       
approach that so completely outstripped his plans for the American epic that, in                 
effect, he had superseded his work before he had been able to get it underway.                   
Crane set out to write a chronological exploration of America in which the poem                   
opened with Columbus, proceeded to the crisis of the Civil War, and brought us                   
to the present with the example of the subway. This was the burdensome plot that                 
failed to ignite his interest in the winter and spring of 1926. That structure                   
remains obscurely in place in the final work, but it is almost certainly the                     
least important aspect of the poem.                                                               
What allowed Crane to begin The Bridge was a complete change of scene, a shift                   
to the Isle of Pines in the Caribbean. Left to himself, Crane at first lapsed                     
into melancholy and despair. To cultural critic Waldo Frank, one of a number of                   
father-surrogates to whom Crane looked for guidance and whom he used to                           
construct points of stability in his life, he wrote an eloquent explanation of                   
why The Bridge was no longer possible to write (see his June 20, 1926, letter).                   
Few poets have exposed the prospects of the modern epic to so withering a                         
critique. But having thoroughly internalized all the reasons why a modern epic                   
is impossible, Crane shortly thereafter began to write, with a fluency that was                   
entirely new to him, the poems that would together make up more than two-thirds                   
of The Bridge. Like his earlier lyrics, they rise out of a divided state of mind.                 
By understanding the unlikelihood of his project, Crane (no doubt inadvertantly)                 
constructed a basis upon which to begin it: the very point of the poem was that                   
it was needed, that it did not yet exist, that it was to be sought for, an act                   
of postulation.                                                                                   
The Promenade over the Brooklyn Bridge, New York, opened 1883. John and                           
Washington Roebling. Corbis-Bettmann, photo c. 1925.                                             
Geography further impinges on these poems. On the Isle of Pines, his thoughts                     
turned longingly to New York, to the urban space in which it was possible to                     
pursue emotional attachments that took unconventional turns, in which the                         
homosexual life style was more or less sheltered. As a result, many poems in The                 
Bridge center on New York City: they convey the spaces of the modern city as few                 
other poems have – the droning menace of the abruptly-deserted subway (in "The                   
Tunnel"), the harsh quality of mid-day light as it is reflected off the sides of                 
skycrapers ("Proem"), or the vistas that unexpectedly open to disclose layers of                 
the past ("Cutty Sark"). At the same time, the poems are also encoded with                       
elements of the gay life-style. The love that is sought in the city is left                       
unspecified, as if it were designed to be universalized, anyone’s love. While                     
the poem asks to be read in this way, it also suggests that love may flourish in                 
unexpected places. When Crane positions himself under the shadows of the bridge,                 
he is, in one sense, simply the poet of the romantic tradition, the observer who                 
stands aside the better to see; but he is, in another sense, the gay male                         
cruising in an area notorious for its casual sex. Even the bridge itself, the                     
Brooklyn Bridge that is the central object of the poem, was strongly identified                   
in Crane’s own mind with Emil Opffer, to whom Voyages was dedicated. The                         
appearance of the bridge secretly encrypts a highly personal memory and a                         
specific presence in the text. Crane’s "epic of America" gets underway as a                       
personal quest, as a poem divided against itself, in devotion to an urban                         
setting that encourages social diversity, with secret inscriptions that retain                   
their meanings to which only a privileged few are accessible.                                     
Crane would never again write as compellingly as he did in the summer and fall                   
of 1926. (From the same period comes the coruscating "O Carib Isle!," a poem                     
that conveys in concrete imagery the paralyzing effects of extreme self-consciousness.)           
His later contributions to The Bridge can be witty, smart, magisterial, but                       
their primary task is to fill out a narrative, to introduce elements that turn                   
the poem in a more conventional direction. "The River" and "Cape Hatteras"                       
dutifully explore the role of the railroad and the airplane; they intelligently                   
consider how each new technology dominates and effectively annihilates the                       
environment into which it is introduced. They usefully expand the scope of the                   
poem by moving us across a vast geography. "The River" jumps from the Dakotas to                 
California to North Carolina before settling on its journey down the Mississippi;                 
"Cape Hatteras" leaps from Bombay to Kitty Hawk, from the battlefields of the                     
Civil War in Virginia to the battlefields of the Great war in the Somme. It is                   
perhaps not an accident that a homosexual presence remains furtively on hand in                   
both poems, in the free-ranging tramps of "the River," in the vagabond Whitman                   
of "Cape Hatteras." For the great problem that stymied Crane after 1926 had to                   
do with the conflict between his identity as a gay male and his identity as a                     
poet. Numerous unpublished lyrics, most written between 1927 and 1931, attest to                 
the struggle Crane undertook to invent a discourse that would honestly translate                 
aspects of his homosexual experience into poetry.                                                 
Publication of The Bridge in 1930 brought Crane notoriety and fame. He had been                   
a name to reckon with earlier. Stephen Rose Benet had parodied his work in his                   
Saturday Review column in 1928, and Man Ray had taken his photo for Vanity Fair                   
in 1929. Now, in 1930, he was told by Eda Lou Walton, he was being included in                   
her New York University course in contemporary poetry. He was awarded a                           
Guggenheim in 1931 and settled in Mexico to work on a long poem about the Aztec                   
civilization. Little on that project was ever accomplished. In the 1920s, Crane                   
had begun to drink heavily. Speak-easies and taverns were logical places to seek                 
out sexual companionship. He learned early on that he could return from states                   
of ecstasy with snatches of poetic phrasing that he could not obtain any other                   
way. In Europe in 1929, falling in among wealthy expatriates, Crane pursued his                   
dissolution. By 1930, friends who had not seem him for several months were                       
expressing astonishment at his premature aging: his facial features losing                       
sharpness and tone, his hair rapidly greying.                                                     
Though the causes for anyone’s suicide are almost certain to be multiple, in the                 
case of Crane it seems an act unusually overdetermined. In April of 1932, he was                 
returning to an America that was ravaged by a financial depression. His father                   
had died in 1931, in the process revealing just how completely his once-ample                     
resources had been depleted. He was returning to New York City, his Guggenheim                   
fellowship over, knowing that tales of his drunken exploits in Mexico would have                 
preceded him. His project of an "Aztec epic" had resulted in less than a handful                 
of poems. The one serious work he had recently written (in March), "The Broken                   
Tower," was essentially a love-poem, though it tellingly betrayed his longing                     
for a time in the past that was intensely energetic and that now seemed                           
unattainably remote. Friends were scattered. And Harry Crosby, who had                           
encouraged Crane to finish The Bridge by offering to publish it in his Black Sun                 
Press, had killed himself two years earlier. Years of drink had almost certainly                 
ravaged his physical condition, undermining his ability to control his mental                     
stability. His leap into the ocean must have seemed one of the few choices he                     
had left.                                                                                         
Critics acted rapidly to turn Crane’s death into a lesson for other poets. They                   
argued that his failure proved it was impossible to write a poem that was both                   
socially engaged and aesthetically satisfying. Tate maintained that his own "Ode                 
to the Confederate Dead" (1926) was successful precisely because of the elegiac                   
tone it adopted, mourning an ideal that was now utterly lost. A common theme                     
among the critics reviewing Crane’s work was that the epic was impossible                         
because modern culture lacked the very center which the epic was supposed to                     
portray. Crane’s suicide was virtually preordained, Yvor Winters suggested, by                   
the absence of adequate intellectual pre-commitment. What poets needed, these                     
critics concluded, was to follow more carefully the advice of critics, and both                   
Winters and Tate followed their own advice by more or less abandoning poetry for                 
criticism. The cultural epic – the socially-engaged sequence composed of                         
aesthetically self-sufficient lyrics – was pronounced obsolete. Long poems could                 
still be written, but only by representatives of the first generation of                         
modernism – by Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens – who were entitled to continue                   
because of their claims as "inventors" of the form. But critics in the 1930s and                 
1940s warned young poets away from attempting such work.                                         
These warnings were recorded in textbooks and dutifully taught in universities.                   
But practicing poets were likely to be unaware of such pronouncements. A "Crane                   
tradition" of the long poem continued after his death, though the critical                       
discourse of the academy was designed not to recognize it. Rather than being                     
bothered by the incompleteness of Crane’s project, poets were attracted to the                   
idea of fulfilling it. Traces of his powerful rhetoric flash through numerous                     
poets of the 1930s, including Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Fearing, and Edwin Rolfe.                 
Among the poets most powerfully influenced by Crane was Melvin B. Tolson, whose                   
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) is, among many other things, a                       
spectacular refutation of the claim that the political text cannot be an                         
aesthetic triumph. The poets in the California Quarterly, the short-lived                         
journal of the early 1950s that sought to present works that were both                           
politically and aesthetically sophisticated, continually evoked Crane as an                       
ideal. Lawrence Lipton’s Rainbow at Midnight (1955), a portion of which appeared                 
in an early version in California Quarterly, pointedly invokes Crane as a figure                 
whose absence is felt as debilitating. (Had he lived, he would have been fifty-five               
in the year the poem was published.) The densely-rhetorical intellectual poetry                   
that Harry Brown offered in 1949 in The Beast in His Hunger owes as much to                       
Crane as Robert Lowell’s early work in Lord Weary’s Castle (1947). By 1960,                       
Lowell could describe Crane as "less limited than any other poet of his                           
Serious re-evaluation of Crane in the university began in 1967 when R. W. B.                     
Lewis proposed a resolution to the dilemma of Crane’s "obscurity" by invoking a                   
visionary tradition in which clarity was not necessarily a premium. The somewhat                 
cavalier readings of Lewis provoked several close studies. The most ground-breaking               
of these was completed by Thomas E. Yingling a few years before his untimely                     
death as a victim of the AIDS epidemic, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text (1992).               
In the 1970s and 1980s, the rehabilitation of Crane’s reputation depended on                     
revealing an artistry in passages that had been previously dismissed as                           
incoherent; the newly-reconstructed Crane who emerged from such close attention                   
was often a universalized figure. Yingling, following strong promptings in Lee                   
Edelman’s discussion of rhetorical tropes in Crane, saw that Crane’s authority                   
rested on his position as an outsider whose own writings were not only                           
expressions of his own psychological division but also eloquent records of                       
elaborate cultural and social divisions.