Friday, April 10, 2015

Hart Crane


“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.” 
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The history of art and literature is filled with interesting, sometimes stirring, personal stories of people who have overcome tremendous odds to explore, often without recognition, new ways of looking at life, the world, and the human spirit.  Some have received fame, others have surrendered to obscurity, yet all have contributed in one manner or another.

The artists and writers I lament are those who once showed great promise, constructed worthy and interesting poetry or prose, but through a combination of unfortunate events or experiences, disappeared from the arts or from life.  One of those artists was the poet, Hart Crane.

It's hard to find and I'm told that it's meant to be.  The first time I saw it was by accident, as I was tooling around the area of Cleveland known as The Flats, a collection of old warehouses by the eastern and western sides of the Cuyahoga River that splits the city.  Most of these warehouses closed in the 1960's and 70's only to be reopened as nightclubs and entertainment venues in the 80's and 90's.  The scene is no longer quite what it was, but at the time I came across Hart Crane's statue, The Flats' second waning period had not yet begun.

I was there in the daytime escorting an artist friend around the old railway bridges that resembled not so much gigantic erector sets but the desiccated exo-skeletons of enormous and extinct insects.  As it was a gray and overcast day, he was hoping to produce some stark and urban black and white photos of the area. 

There are few things duller than being a guide to someone who speaks mostly to his camera, so I found myself wandering around the gritty parking lots that served the businesses that were closed on that Monday holiday, staring into the gray blackness of an industrial river, looking across the stream at the closed nightclubs, their façades looking far less inviting when not illuminated and their interiors not filled with the energy of celebratory crowds.

Between a small electronics shop and a windowless bunker that bore the unlikely name of "Club Ooo-La-La" I found the tribute to Crane, one of the lost poets of the early 20th century.  My home town is known for many things, some of which I've highlighted in these Friday illustrations, but it is rarely associated with one of the distinct voices in the lyrical arts.  So forlorn, so out-of-place was the statue that I called my photographer friend over to take a few pictures.

I'm rather glad I did as, some years later, which was the next time I was that deeply into downtown, the statue was gone.  While that area had been cleaned up and named "Hart Crane Park", the bronze had been replaced by...well...what appeared to be the colorful viscera of a large cartoon character.


While some of the objects bear verses from Crane's poems, it looked more like a generic urban art project that one can find littering most of the open spaces of the Rust Belt.

A little disappointed, I started a minor quest to find what happened to the bronze.  As Hart Crane had moved from Cleveland to New York before he became a recognized poet, I was a little concerned that the bronze had followed him to a city that was over-packed with tributes to minor artists.

A quick trip to a research library one hundred and five blocks away at Case Western Reserve University eased my concern, however.  In an exchange worthy of an Abbott and Costello routine, I asked the reference librarian if she knew what had happened to the bronze statue that had once been in the The Flats.  In response, she jerked her thumb over her shoulder and said, "It's there."  I assured her that I had been all over the park, all 200 square feet of it, and nothing was there except some elementary school sculpture.

"No, it's there."  Again with the thumb jerk.

"No, I mean the bronze.  A sculpture of his actual likeness.  He's holding a hat", I said in what I hoped was a helpful tone.

With some impatience, she lead me to the window behind the reference desk and pointed.  "See?  It's there."

And so it was.  In a city with 31 public and 8 university libraries, I had managed to stumble across the one that now hosted that obscure object.  It was indeed in the back of the library in a small outdoor seating area, set behind the building so that the considerable traffic noise was obscured.  It was not so much placed to be a point of reverence as it was for solace, which made it rather perfect for its subject.

Hart Crane was not born and raised in Cleveland but in the small town of Garettsville in 1899.  His parents divorced while he was in high school, an act that scandalized his family in small town Ohio, and made Crane a bit of an outcast.  He moved to Cleveland as soon as he could, it was, after all, the big city, and began working a series of jobs and attempting to hone his senses through writing.

While living in Cleveland, Crane was introduced to poetry by his grandmother who exposed him to the dynamic works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, whose style he sought to compliment. Upon graduation from high school, he was accepted into Columbia University and moved to New York. Once arriving in New York, he surrendered any pretense of being a college student [good move, btw] and, while receiving funds from his parents, worked for some small literary journals that enabled him to find a community of like-minded artists.  Soon, he would find his own compositions printed in those and other journals.

Family complications and a failed attempt to enlist in the military during World War I required Crane's return to Cleveland for factory work and, after the armistice, as a reporter for The Plain Dealer, the city's daily newspaper, and also as a clerk for his father's company.  As can be the case between fathers and sons, this latter vocation lead to estrangement between Crane and his father.  After working a variety of other jobs in Cleveland, he returned to New York and, in between even more odd jobs, eventually produced his first slim volume of poetry.

It was an interesting time in the lyrical arts as the post-WWI period was producing popular, if cynical and depressive, works about nature and the world, typified by poets such as e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot.  [What is it with poets and double initials?]  While certainly capturing a portion of the zeitgeist, Crane, a young man who had not witnessed the carnage of The Great War, had a more hopeful and positive sense of the world and wished to create a counterpart to that type of poetry.

With each work, as Crane became more confident and bold, he became determined to write an epic poem that would capture his vision of the world in the same way that The Waste Land had captured Eliot's.  The work would be entitled The Bridge, based as it was on the vision of the Brooklyn Bridge that Crane had from his apartment window and on those vast, industrial, and insectoid bridges he knew in Cleveland. 

The Bridge is constructed of 15 individual poems, written in lyrical styles that range from Elizabethan pentameter to free verse.  Interestingly, it was one of the first poetical works to recognize the influence of 1920's era jazz music in composition, as the poem shifts tone and metre sometimes in the middle of stanzas, offering an interplay such as one hears in jazz between the established musical rhythm, or blue notes, and the barely restrained excesses of improvisation.  Nothing quite like it had been seen before and, as it required greater concentration from the reader than did the works of any of Crane's contemporaries, it was a delight to the critic and fan of poetry and a vexation to the casual reader.

No matter, with the publication of The Bridge, Crane became a recognized and celebrated new poet by the time he was thirty-years-old.  It was then that all of his promise began to disintegrate.

Due to a powerful addictive disorder, not uncommon in the creative class, and irresponsible behavior in his interpersonal relationships, Crane's fleeting fame, which brought him a certain amount of financial comfort, also permitted him to indulge in his demons.  His work, his art, his life began to suffer for it.  Fleeing New York for Mexico for a year, ostensibly to work on another epic, Crane's friends found a very different man when they visited him.  His features were those of the dissolute, his hair prematurely gray, and his poetry far less innovative or interesting.  As his depression deepened, so did his vices.

Encouraged to return to New York, Crane set sail on the S.S. Orizaba and, after some controversial activity on his part, on April 27, 1932, he climbed the railing on the ship's stern, gave a hearty wave, announced "Goodbye, everybody", and jumped into the Gulf of Mexico.  His body was never recovered. 

All of Crane's poetry is still in print, with online versions available for free.  The Library of America has all of his poetry, and some of his letters, collected in one volume.  A handful of biographies have been written about him, with the most recent being The Broken Tower, which was published fifteen years ago.  As with Malcolm Lowery, whom we remembered a couple of years ago, it is a harrowing and ultimately tragic story.

Of his influence, however, a number of writers have been quick to identify Crane's importance in their own endeavors.  Eugene O'Neill, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell all cite Crane as having an effect on their work.  In fact, if one reads the ending stanza of "The River", one of the poems in The Bridge, and compares it to the opening verses of T.S. Eliot's "East Coker" in Four Quartets, one may find that Eliot was more than casually influenced by Crane.

Additionally, Harold Bloom, the well-known Yale-based literary critic, credited Hart Crane [along with William Blake] with interesting him in literature, and Tennessee Williams once wished that upon his own death that his remains be surrendered to the deep at the coordinates of Crane's final dive into the Gulf. 

A contemporary poet, Gerald Stern, summarized Hart Crane's work and life thus:
Crane is always with me, and whatever I wrote, short poem or long, strange or unstrange—his voice, his tone, his sense of form, his respect for life, his love of the word, his vision have affected me. But I don't want, in any way, to exploit or appropriate this amazing poet whom I am, after all, so different from, he who may be, finally, the great poet, in English, of the twentieth century.