Hart Crane, one of the great poets of the Jazz age, is best known for his epic hymn to the modern, 'The Bridge.' Born in 1899 to a father who was never reconciled to Hart's poetic vocation, and to a mother who was always a forceful, domineering presence in his life, Crane was keen to escape Garretsville, Ohio as soon as he could.1 In 1923, he leapt into the open arms of New York City (for him 'the centre of the world today'). There he attempted to ingratiate himself into the buzzing cultural world that he found. He wrote letters, set up meetings and poured praise upon some of the most important figures of the time including: the photographers Alfred Steiglitz and Walker Evans; the poets Marianne Moore and Jean Toomer; the critic Waldo Frank; the playwright Eugene O'Neill and the artist Georgia O'Keefe.
Faustus and Helen: 'the imagination spans beyond despair'
Even before his arrival in New York, Crane had made something of a mark with his poem 'For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen', a three-part lyric poem based on the play Dr Faustus. You can read this poem and more of Crane's work at poets.org.
In this piece, Crane gives a hint of what is to come in later work. In his aggressive modernising of the Faustus story, he posits the characters in the middle of a very modern city, complete with 'baseball scores/The stenographic smiles and stock quotations...'
'Voyages': 'Permit me voyage, love, into your hands...'
But between 'Faustus and Helen' and 'The Bridge', Crane wrote love poetry. 'Voyages' was a seven-part lyric poem partly inspired, it is generally agreed, by his relationship with Emil Opffer, a merchant seaman who Crane met in 1924. Relatively open about his homosexuality at a time when it was not exactly fashionable to be so, Crane was frank about the intensity of his feelings for his lover:
Past whirling pillars and little pediments,
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
Here is the passion of Crane, but here too are the verbal fireworks that make his poetry 'difficult'. At times, Crane appears to be trying to pack as many images into his work as he can, and the result can sometimes be overwhelming, if brilliant. Nonetheless, this is poetry that rewards the careful reader, and even the careless one can enjoy at least the beauty of lines like: '
as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.'
'The Bridge': 'lend a myth to God'
By far Crane's greatest achievement, 'The Bridge' – taking as one of its inspirations Brooklyn Bridge – was begun in 1926 and published in 1930.
Despite his wondering in a letter of 1922: 'will radios, flying machines, and cinemas have such a great effect on poetry in the end?', Crane is regarded as one of the poet-prophets of Modernism, and this epic narrative seems to bear out this assertion. Many critics have compared its scope to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, but Crane always rejected Eliot's writing as unemotional, suggesting it was useful to him only as 'a point of departure for an almost complete reverse of direction'.
Beginning with a dedication to the Brooklyn Bridge itself, Crane's 'symphony with an epic theme' soars through America, taking in the mythic and the real, documenting the influences upon and ages of his country as Crane saw them. He weaves into his narrative the figures of Pocahontas, Rip van Winkle and Walt Whitman, who act as guides on his epic journey into America, and finally his visions converge on the bridge itself, 'One Song, one Bridge of Fire!' which represents the place (metaphorical, spiritual and literal) to which America has come.
Like another key modernist author, John Dos Passos, Crane allows unnamed voices to speak parts of the poem. The first part of 'The River' section for instance, is spoken in the fluid rhythms of jazz by an energetic follower of the fashions of the day:
Stick your name on a signboard
brother-all over-going west-young man
Tintex-Japalac-Certain-teed Overalls ads
and land sakes! under the new playbill ripped
in the guaranteed corner-see Bert Williams what?
While others recoiled from the power and pace of modern life, Crane celebrated it. The breathless and joyful expression here mimics the racing locomotive and the unconventional use of punctuation highlights the astounding newness of things. It is America - the brave New World that Crane sees earlier in the poem through the eyes of Columbus - and Hart approves. A film version of this section is available to view.
But his poem is not just a curiosity because of its historical content. Crane believes he is at the cusp of something more significant than just a few more years of American history:
Dream cancels dream in this new realm of fact
From which we wake into the dream of act;
Seeing himself an atom in a shroud-
Man hears himself an engine in a cloud!
Crane struggled to complete the poem, and as extraordinary an achievement as it is, it was not received as favourably by critics as Crane had desired. The comments of one critic, Malcolm Cowley, illustrate the mixed reception well: '...its faults are obvious; but still it has succeeeded to an impressive degree.' Other critics were more scathing, Odell Shepard suggesting the poem was just 'a constant succession of loud noises.'3 In 1931 however, Crane received a Guggenheim fellowship and vowed to write another long poem, based on the legends of Mexico – to where he travelled later that year.
1931 - 1932: Mexico
Despite the attentions of a painter-girlfriend, Peggy Cowley (the critic's ex-wife) who was the subject of his last major poem, 'The Broken Tower', Crane drank himself into disrepute and despair. Having squandered, as he saw it, the money from the Fellowship, with no financial support from his family (his father had died during the summer of 1931), and with few good critical notices, Crane felt himself isolated and a failure.
On the morning of 27 April, 1932, Hart Crane visited Peggy Cowley in her cabin on board the ship they were taking back to the United States from Mexico. The night before had been fraught with drunken distress. Crane had apparently been beaten and robbed, and may have slept with one of the ship's cabin boys. He had tried to jump off the ship, and had to be restrained by a member of the crew. He told Peggy Cowley: 'I'm not going to make it, dear. I'm utterly disgraced.' Shortly afterwards Crane threw himself off the boat for a second time. This time there was no-one there to stop him. He drowned, aged just thirty-two.
Marc Simon (ed): The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Liveright, 2000.
Hammer, L and Weber, B (eds): O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997.
John Unterecker, Voyager, A Life of Hart Crane, Anthony Blond, 1970.