Even in a life constantly teetering on the edge and possessed by moments of genius, there was no more spectacular day in the life of Hart Crane than the day he left this world.
The facts are that over 70 years ago, the poet was on the SS Orizaba, a ship traveling 275 miles north east of Havana from Mexico to New York. It was there he drank copious amounts of alcohol, and after several violent outbursts, had to be locked in his cabin. It is said he was in such a fierce state that the door had to be nailed shut. Somehow, against all odds Crane managed to escape and was seen heading for the sailor’s quarters in search of “the secret oar and petals of love” which translates from Crane-speak as a hefty bout of buggering. He was found later that night beaten up and relieved of his valuables.
The next morning, he visited his companion and sometime lover Peggy Cowley, who at the time was trying to “rescue” him from the terrible affliction that he happened to be attracted to people of the same sex. His last words to her were “I’m not going to make it dear, I’m utterly disgraced.” With this he left, and was seen at the boat’s stern where he approached the railing in an overcoat under the midday sun. He removed this and, in his pajamas, leapt over the side and was last seen swimming strongly towards the horizon. Lifeboats were sent out to search for him but returned empty-handed. His body was never found. The ship’s captain, a man called Blackadder (clearly not skilled in the art of bereavement diplomacy), said, “If the propellers didn’t grind him to mincemeat then the sharks would have got him immediately.”
Though it is undoubtedly the deed that has immortalized the poet, all his work is unfairly viewed in its shadow. Certainly, it played its part in telling the story of who he was, but it shouldn’t tell the whole story.
If you are looking to find out where he was born and all that Catcher in the Rye sort of crap, all I can tell you is that he was born in Cleveland, Ohio into a wealthy middle class background. Through the manufacture of maple syrup, his father made a fortune but lost it all in the Great Depression. The young Crane did not have a happy upbringing, later writing to his mother: “it’s time for you to realize that my youth has been a rather bloody battleground for yours and father’s sex life and troubles.” Obviously taking it seriously, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists but thankfully survived. Whether his upbringing led to his poetic inclination to unify themes, to prevent conflict and separation, as psychologists have claimed, is either the truth or psychobabble according to your view of these self-absorbed analytical times. Rejecting the business path that his father attempted to coerce him into, he struggled to hold down the monotony of a steady job, the sure sign of a genius or a rogue or both. He drifted into New York and, mesmerized by the city and filled with mad ambition, found a cheap flat at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn above the harbour, above the sound of the river, the passing boats and the fights and intrigues of the waterfront. From the window where he sat his desk, he could see the granite gothic arches and the steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. His muse stared in at him as he struggled to think of something to write. Later he found out that his window was the very one from which Washington Roebling, the bridge’s engineer, had watched its construction.
Intoxicated by his hero Edgar Allen Poe’s assertion that the thirst of the poet was that “of the moth for the stars”, he set about to try and bring the wonderment of WBaudelaire enthused, or to reach “the rational derangement of the senses” of Rimbaud. Or they may have simply been excuses to get his rocks off and get pished.
Indeed Crane has often been called the American Rimbaud, but though he was similar in his incendiary personality he was not quite the poetic revolution that young Arthur was. Nevertheless he searched for “divine madness” and found it fleetingly in some remarkable works. It was not an easy life. He regularly struggled with poverty, trying to extract money from his parents like teeth from a drunkard, and suffered artistic frustration, resorting to throwing his typewriter from his window onto the pavement below. Staggering whiskey-sodden through the streets in search of a willing sailor he’d shout, “I am Baudelaire, I am Marlowe, I am Whitman” into the night. His only problem was that despite his calls he remained Hart Crane, and for him, that wasn’t quite good enough.
At more successful productive times he would sit writing in an alcohol-induced frenzy, listening to the same song over and over again on full blast from his Victrola, and when finished, he would leave to go down into the city under the pseydonym Mile Drayton, where he’d cruise the rough spots looking to get laid.
One reason why he echoes Rimbaud is, like the demented Frenchman, he was the scourge of the intelligentsia. “Who is this young poet?” the fashionistas would ask and, “Can we have him at our next dinner party?” And sure enough he’d turn up and they would never invite him back. For this alone, I will always toast the man’s memory. Oh and almost as an afterthought, his work was also quite good.
After much time and effort, his central work The Bridge was eventually forged. The Brooklyn Bridge, the “terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,” would be a symbol which would unify all the disparate elements of what he thought America was. The native, the colonizer, science and art and business and technology, the modern and the ancient into “One Song, One bridge of fire!”
Amongst this and the follow up White Buildings, there are some stunning pieces of writing. Metaphors such as “adagios of islands” gliding past slowly and gracefully like the melody of a string quartet blissfully recreates ocean travel. Nor was it all positive and idealistic. The lines
“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan”
refer to both the individual submerged by the sheer mass of the city and Crane himself the displaced homosexual.
There is no doubt he wrote some tripe, but search through his writing and you’ll be rewarded. The most admirable characteristic of his work was the fact that he sought to celebrate the world and what life could be with “rapturous intensity” and in doing so, put his neck on the chopping block for all the arch miserabilists who earn their living trying to fool us into believing that life isn’t worth living. The fact that it was unfashionable, at a time when most poets revealed, and reveled in, how brutal and terrible the world was made it refreshing. His novel approach was basically “enough moaning, we require new sensations” and like the futurists of Europe, he believed we needed a new poetry for these new times. So rather than write of old women sitting drinking tea talking about Michelangelo, he’d write about the mighty Charlie Chaplin and suspension bridges and skyscrapers. He summed up the situation perfectly when he said, “The poetry of negation i
s beautiful, alas too dangerously so for one of my mind. But I am trying to break away from it. Perhaps this is useless, perhaps it is silly but one does have joys. The vocabulary of damnations has been developed at the expense of these other mood. Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!” In this way his work may be the antidote to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, an upper to Eliot’s downer and his America a fresh start as Europe collapsed.
The Bridge, somewhat a breath of fresh air, received critical acclaim. A lone voice, influenced by unfashionable Elizabethan poets as well as a desire to write the epic of the metropolis, he belonged to no school, no -ism, no following, and he is perhaps all the better for it. His natural allies would only come after he had died. Tragically, he is very close to the same trajectory of the Beats, merging supposedly high discourse and low street talk, celebrating bebop and swing and getting high and seeking to find out what America was or could be. This is tragic because perhaps he was a Beat born too early and was set adrift on his own, spurned by the establishment and without comrades to rely on.
Remember the words of his quoted earlier, “Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive!” They could have come from the mouth of Keroauc himself. Think of the similarities: the homoeroticism, the jazz, the searching for boundless beauty through travel and intoxication. Think of On the Road ending in Mexico or Burroughs in Tangiers and it is all too easy to sense the presence of the ghost of Hart Crane, or at least the echoes of his lonesome paths. Perhaps he was a Beat born too early or the Beats were Hart Cranes born too late.
It is tempting to borrow his own iconography and say that Crane was the bridge from Walt Whitman to the Beats. Sure enough, I can imagine his lines: “We have seen the moon in lonely alleys make a grail of laughter of an empty ash can” taking flight over “the Negro streets at dawn” and their “angel headed hipsters” and deep into Howl.
To leave it at that would be a disservice to the man. For he deserves the respect to be seen as important in his own right–an end rather than a means to an end–a “was” rather than a “might have been”. Due to The Bridge, Crane won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and with the money, he set sail for Mexico where he intended to research an epic about Cortes’ conquests of the Americas. There he rented a villa next to the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who recalled that he was charming company except (and this is a big except) when he reached “that point of drunkenness when he cursed all things; the moon, the air we breathed, the pool of water with its two small ducks. He didn’t hate us…he hated and feared himself.” This highlighted an increasingly prevalent part of his character–a self-destructive self-loathing–which is not something that should be fed by those distanced enough to romanticize about the tortured artist, that most voyeuristic of myths. It should be remembered that self-disgust is self-attention and is narcissistic, an obsession with selfhood which should never be celebrated as a virtue. This was a human being trying and failing to endure, and it was a pitiful sight.
While in Mexico, David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, painted his portrait but chose to portray him with down turned eyes because he said there was too much desperation in them. Crane’s reaction was to slice the painting to ribbons and drink a bottle of iodine in another botched attempt to kill himself. You could speak all day about how he wrestled with his repressed sexuality, and he undoubtedly did, but to blame all his troubles on this would be a cop-out, for the man positively adored the act of homosexual sex and his character in almost every aspect of his life, not just sex, was leaning towards manic depression.
Perhaps like his descendant Keroauc, his search for happiness and beauty gave him a purpose but no contentment. Perhaps all art is, as Wilde admitted, the telling of beautiful lies. By the time he left Mexico he wasn’t believing his own poetry anymore and wrote only one poem, “The Broken Tower” where he lamented each “desperate choice,” all transitory in nature. He left when the money (and the inspiration and ambition) ran out and headed back to an America that seemed determined to repeat the mistakes Europe had made. It was not quite the fresh start he had envisioned.
Suffering from hallucinations due to his alcohol intake and having left poetry behind (or it having left him behind), there was only one end for the man and, having written for so long about the sea, there was only one means of doing it.
There are quite a few reasons for reading Crane. One is because of his extraordinary life or the admiration for those who follow their passions and live their lives precariously on the edge. That stunningly beautiful paragraph in On the Road:
“the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,”
…the paragraph that probably cost Neal Cassady his life attempting to live up to it, and probably cost Keroauc’s his running away from it–that paragraph that could just as well have been written about Crane.
Or you could read his works just to see what he had to say about the world while he was here.