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The Letters of Hart Crane

Edited by Brom Weber

The Letters of Hart Crane , edited by Brom Weber. New York: Hermitage House, 1952.

If there is a ghost, or unquiet spirit, of a man ever left to us, it may well be that Hart Crane is not dead—or not in our comfortable sense of that word. I note that Brom Weber brings this up, unintentionally, in his ridiculous preface and chronology for the book in question: "Three days later, on the 27th, he [Crane] either jumped or fell into the Caribbean Sea and was drowned. His body was not recovered" (p. xvi). Perhaps we have our own fears of the sea, and also of a man not actually 'laid to rest,' not finally put under as we are accustomed to do with the dead.

But lacking the body, an age of critics can still sustain its necrophilia on the body of the work itself. Hart Crane "was admittedly not a thinker," Weber says (p. x), ignoring, for one thing, Williams' premise that "the poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that is the profundity." To prepare us, Weber speaks of Crane's "acquisitive need for sympathy, pity, understanding, affection," of a man "tyrannically governed by a chronic need to love and be loved" (pp. vi, viii). One might well say the same of any human being.

In any case some anger can be righteous, and some usage cannot be put up with. Lacking a present means to deal with Weber, finally—the reader is advised to bypass his comments altogether. (Or better, to judge for himself the man writing "The last chapter of the Crane biography" [p. x].) He is not helpful.

Origin , Summer 1954.


Crane is, however, and we have, at last, a reasonable addendum to the poetry itself which may serve as the gauge we had lacked. What was Crane's conception of poetry? "Poetry, in so far as the metaphysics of any absolute knowledge extends, is simply the concrete evidence of the experience of a recognition (knowledge if you like). It can give you a ratio of fact and experience, and in this sense it is both perception and thing perceived, according as it approaches a significant articulation or not. This is its reality, its fact, being " (p. 237).

More than that, what was Crane's summation of his own position—the cause back of all Weber's inanities, not to mention his biography of Crane or Waldo Frank's fantastic introduction to the Collected Poems? Was it absolutely this fact of "Crane's tender friendships . . . with boys who followed the Sea" and "drink" as "the Sea's coadjutor"? So says Frank—but does it matter?

I have a certain code of ethics. I have not as yet attempted to reduce it to any exact formula, and if I did I should probably embark on an endless tome with monthly additions and digressions every year. It seems obvious that a certain decent carriage and action is a paramount requirement in any poet, deacon or carpenter. And though I reserve myself the pleasant right to define these standards in a somewhat individual way, and to shout and complain when circumstances against me seem to warrant it, on the other hand I believe myself to be speaking honestly when I say that I have never been able to regret—for long—whatever has happened to me, more especially those decisions which at times have been permitted a free will. . . . And I am as completely out of sympathy with the familiar whimpering caricature of the artist and his "divine rights" as you seem to be. I am not a Stoic, though I think I could lean more in that direction if I came to (as I may sometime) appreciate more highly the imaginative profits of such a course. (pp. 299–300)

Back of this, there are the poems, forgotten for the most part—but if this book can do anything, and one hopes at least, it may bring us back to them somewhat sobered. We know, we know, we know, etc., that The Bridge was a 'failure'—though why, and how, we are not at all quite so sure of. Crane wrote to Allen Tate: "I shall be humbly grateful if The Bridge can fulfill simply the metaphorical inference of its title. . . . You will admit our age (at least our predicament) to be one of transition" (p. 353). It has done that, I think.

The shorter poems, those found in White Buildings and Key West , have escaped the 'failure' of The Bridge , but they have also been affected, i.e., they seem to be thought less 'significant.' And there again we have the critic's help. "One is appalled, on reading his


[Crane's] explication of 'At Melville's Tomb' to realize that while he could associatively justify the chain of metaphors comprising the poem, he was oblivious of the difference between a random and logical mode of association." (Which is Grover Smith, from within his own oblivion.) But the poem?

At Melville's Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death's bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides. . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

This is the GREATEST summation of Melville I have ever read. O well. . . .

"I don't know whether you want to hear from me or not—since you have never written—but here's my love anyway. . . ." He did all anyone could.


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