Harold Hart Crane was an American poet. Finding both inspiration and provocation in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Crane wrote modernist poetry that is difficult, highly stylized, and very ambitious in its scope. In his most ambitious work, The Bridge, Crane sought to write an epic poem in the vein of The Waste Land that expressed something more sincere and optimistic than the ironic despair that Crane found in Eliot's poetry. In the years following his suicide at the age of 32, Crane has come to be seen as one of the most influential poets of his generation.
Life and Work
Hart Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio. His father, Clarence, was a successful Ohio businessman who invented the Life Savers candy and held the patent, but sold it for $2,900 before the brand became popular. He made other candy and accumulated a fortune from the candy business with chocolate bars. Crane's mother and father were constantly fighting, and early in April, 1917, they divorced. Hart dropped out of high school during his junior year and left for New York City, promising his parents he would attend Columbia University later. His parents, in the middle of divorce proceedings, were upset. Crane took various copywriting jobs and jumped between friends’ apartments in Manhattan. 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.
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 "Voyages", a powerful sequence of erotic poems, was written while he was falling in love with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant marine. "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."
Crane returned to New York in 1928, living with friends and taking temporary jobs until moving back to Brooklyn, first to 77 Willow Street. He had a love affair with Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser. Emil invited Crane to live in his father’s home at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Crane was overjoyed at the views the location afforded him. He wrote his mother and grandmother in the spring of 1924:
“Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbour, and the marvelous beauty of Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshaled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live. This section of Brooklyn is very old, but all the houses are in splendid condition and have not been invaded by foreigners...”
His ambition to synthesize America was expressed in The Bridge (1930), intended to be an uplifting counter to Eliot's's The Waste Land. The Brooklyn Bridge is both the poem’s central symbol and its poetic starting point. Crane found what a place to start his synthesis in Brooklyn. Arts patron Otto H. Kahn gave him $2,000 to begin work on the epic poem. When he wore out his welcome at the Opffers, Crane left for Paris in early 1929 but failed to leave his personal problems behind.
While in Paris in February 1929, Harry Crosby, who with his wife Caresse Crosby owned the fine arts press Black Sun Press, offered Crane the use of their country retreat, Le Moulin du Soleil in Ermenonville. They hoped he could use the time to concentrate on completing The Bridge. Crane spent several weeks at their estate where he roughed out a draft of the "Cape Hatteras" section, a key part of his epic poem. In late June that year, Crane returned from the south of France to Paris. Harry noted in his journal, "Hart C. back from Marseilles where he slept with his thirty sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark..." Crane got drunk at the Cafe Select and fought with waiters over his tab. When the Paris police were called, he fought with them and was beaten. They arrested and jailed him, fining him 800 francs. After six days in prison at La Sante, Harry Crosby paid Crane's fine and advanced him money for the passage back to the United States where he finally finished The Bridge.
The Bridge received poor reviews, but Crane’s sense of his own failure became crushing. It was during the late 1920s, while he was finishing The Bridge, that his drinking, always a problem, became notably worse.
Crane visited Mexico in 1931–32 on a Guggenheim Fellowship and his drinking continued as he suffered from bouts of alternating depression and elation. When Peggy Cowley, wife of his friend Malcolm Cowley, agreed to a divorce, she joined Crane. As far as is known, she was his only heterosexual partner. "The Broken Tower," one of his last published poems, emerged from that affair. Crane still felt himself a failure, though, in part because he recommenced homosexual activity in spite of his relationship with Cowley.
While on board the steamship SS Orizaba enroute to New York, he was beaten after making sexual advances to a male crew member, seeming to confirm his own idea that one could not be happy as a homosexual. Just before noon on April 27, 1932, Hart Crane jumped overboard into the Gulf of Mexico. Although he had been drinking heavily and left no suicide note, witnesses believed his intentions to be suicidal, as several reported that he exclaimed "Goodbye, everybody!" before throwing himself overboard. (The legend among poets is: He walked to the fantail, took off his coat quietly, and jumped.) 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, are particularly insightful. 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; regardless of whether 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 in 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."
The "Homosexual Text"
As a boy, he had a sexual relationship with an older man. He 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 social pariah. 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.
Recent queer criticism has asserted 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 others – without a willingness to look for, and uncover, homosexual meanings in the text. The prominent queer theorist 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 objects to 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; he cites, for instance, the last lines of "My Grandmother's Love Letters" from White Buildings as a haunting description of estrangement from the norms of (heterosexual) family life:
The critic Brian Reed has contributed to a project of critical reintegration, suggesting that an overemphasis on the sexual biography of Crane's poetry can skew a broader appreciation of his overall work. He has also contributed a study of Crane's gay lyrical series, "Voyages", to the Poetry Foundation.
Some poet-critics such as Yvor Winters, have been ambivalent about Hart's work. Winters’s review in The Bridge in Poetry grants Crane’s status of a "poet of genius" as a matter of course, before going on to say that the poem augurs a "public catastrophe". Crane was admired by artists such as Allen Tate, Eugene O'Neill, Kenneth Burke, Edmund Wilson, E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams. Although Hart had his sharp critics, among them Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound, 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. 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 reverently, 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." One of Williams's last plays, a "ghost play" titled "Steps Must Be Gentle," explores Crane's relationship with his mother. Such important affections have made Crane a "poet's poet". 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 the painting by Marsden Hartley "Eight Bells' Folly, Memorial for Hart Crane." Neil Young wrote The Bridge, a song on the Time Fades Away album, which was inspired by the poetry of Crane, and after which The Bridge School and Bridge School Benefit are named.
My hands have not touched pleasure since your hands, --
No, -- nor my lips freed laughter since 'farewell',
And with the day, distance again expands
Voiceless between us, as an uncoiled shell.
Yet, love endures, though starving and alone.
A dove's wings clung about my heart each night
With surging gentleness, and the blue stone
Set in the tryst-ring has but worn more bright.