Hart Crane, White Buildings

White BuildingsWhite Buildings by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend of mine was once enamored of Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World; I think he found in it a literary refutation of an unsustainable idealism toward which he was then tempted—and he also thought that it illuminated the work of Guns N’Roses (on the title page he wrote G N’R and Their World in parentheses). Anyway, I asked him if he had ever read Rabelais (I had not, and I still haven’t), and I’ve always treasured his reply: “I’m not sure what it would even mean to read Rabelais.”

I am sometimes not sure what it even means to read poetry, or to say that one has read it. An Internet-based acquaintance once told me that I didn’t become obsessed with poetry at a young enough age, and that I was consequently stuck in “novel-world.” That’s one of those judgments with which I would concur provided it were expressed more affirmatively: modern lyric poetry is the expression of sensibility and is accordingly hermetic and of an exemplary difficulty—but come on, the novel is the bright book of life!

A novel—and I think this goes for plays too, even Shakespeare—is usually macroscopic, whatever microscopic pleasures it affords. It can be taken in in one reading; one reading is enough to grasp the central lines of conflict and the aesthetic mood that guides our reaction to said conflict. I usually feel free to say that I have “read” a novel (likewise a play) after I’ve read it, even if it is of the type that demands or rewards infinite re-readings. But lyric poetry seems to require something else, something akin to—if not simply, literally—memorization. How many poems have I “read”? Not nearly enough. These days, I do not feel that I’ve “read” a poem until I’ve taught it; only explication at the lectern or communal exegesis will do. And in fact I often prefer to teach poetry, even though I mostly prefer to read (and write) novels.

So have I now read Hart Crane’s poems? I have dipped into them many times over the years but was repelled by their surface, which struck me as verbose and overblown. There is only one reason I dipped then and plunged now: the advocacy of Harold Bloom, who loves Crane like no other, and who writes about him again in his new book, The Daemon Knows, which I intend to read very soon.

I applied myself to Crane’s first collection, White Buildings, published in 1926, when Crane himself was just 27. It has a marvelous epigraph from an even “younger” poet, Rimbaud: “Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant” (“This cannot be anything but the end of the world, advancing”). But Crane’s poems seem less concerned with the end of the world, in the sense of a general conflagration/revelation like that which haunts the era’s master poem, The Waste Land. Rather, death is always near, but it is either personal or universal, above or below any particular world (I assume here that “the end of the world” is always implicitly, behind the religious rhetoric, a social concept—the end of this world, the one I live in, the Roman world, the Aztec world, etc.), while the poet has access to an energy that may resist the end, as here, from the last lines of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

The poems in general present themselves as high walls of language, impasto’d sound surfaces, with meanings not always clear. I have read the following lines from “Voyages,” for instance, over and over and still have no idea of what it means:

In signature of the incarnate word
The harbor shoulders to resign in mingling
Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown
And widening noon within your breast for gathering
All bright insinuations that my years have caught
For islands where must lead inviolably
Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes,—

In this expectant, still exclaim receive
The secret oar and petals of all love.

As is typical of Crane, the syntax is hard to grasp (for one thing, what is the object of the verb “shoulders”?), the diction Latinate (signature, incarnate, transpiring, insinuations, inviolably, latitudes), and the topic only vaguely discernible (erotic love and the sea as holy instances of word made flesh?). All the pleasure is in the play of words, the language’s decoration of the high topic, words hung like garlands around sex and death and ocean.

This very slim volume has two introductions, one from 1926 by Allen Tate and one from 1972 by John Logan. In comparing them, we perhaps see a decline in literary criticism. Logan’s introduction is mind-numbingly biographical. It derives from Crane’s apparent bisexuality a schematic psychoanalytic reading of his poetry in which its subtext is revealed as the attempt to synthesize masculine and feminine sensibilities. All in all, it’s the kind of thing that gives psychoanalytic criticism a bad name:

There is a displacement, in Crane’s poetry, of the language of the body to the language of the landscape…Although such displacement (one kind of metaphor) is general in poetry, one might find a hint in the particular appearance of it in this “grandmother” poem that Hart Crane’s overt homosexuality is in part a defense against admitting the physical feeling for the grandmother or surrogate mother.

It takes a special kind of tastelessness to think that one of the volume’s most translucent and moving poems, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” would be clarified by some overt oedipal gesture in conformity to mid-century Freudian dogma. The poem itself beautifully warns us against all coarseness in reading and interpretation:

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

Allen Tate’s original introduction to the volume, however, is useful and concise, explaining Crane’s poetic and its historical context. Crane, Tate says, must write poetry in the modern world, which has lost the stability and coherence previously provided by Christianity and organic social forms. The modern poet, therefore, must “construct and assimilate his own subjects,” whereas a pre-modern poet such as Dante only had to “assimilate his,” since his society furnished him a subject of sufficient dignity and beauty for poetic treatment. Because Crane is not an Eliotic conservative but a Whitmanian affirmer of the American city, nostalgia or myth can provide him no recourse; the ship really has sailed, to invoke a nautical metaphor appropriate to Crane’s imagery, and the poet thus has to extrude his material from his own inner imaginative vision. Tate explains that this is why Crane’s poetry is so often obscure. Unlike Dante or even Eliot, whose apparently difficult poetry becomes clearer and clearer as you grasp the traditional meanings of their symbols, Crane’s symbols may have no traditional (or transpersonal) meaning at all:

[Crane’s] theme never appears in explicit statement. It is formulated through a series of complex metaphors which defy a paraphrasing of the sense into equivalent prose. The reader is plunged into a strangely unfamiliar milieu of sensation, and the principle of its organization is not immediately grasped. The logical meaning can never be derived (see Passage, Lachrymae Christi); but the poetical meaning is a direct intuition, realized prior to an explicit knowledge of the subject-matter of the poem. The poem does not convey; it presents; it is not topical, but expressive.

That is very well said. And it implies that the best way to read Crane is to let him wash over you (more sea images), let his words and pictures saturate (again!) your own sensibility. Drop the margin-poised pencil, forget the dictionary of myth and symbol, and plunge in. Here, for instance, is a stanza from one of the poems Frank judges to be without logical meaning, “Lachrymae Christi”:

(Let sphinxes from the ripe
Borage of death have cleared my tongue
Once again; vermin and rod
No longer bind. Some sentient cloud
Of tears flocks through the tendoned loam:
Betrayed stones slowly speak.)

This is both incoherent, even to the point of its being ungrammatical, and yet somehow emotionally intelligible: “vermin and rod / No longer bind,” “tendoned loam”—I do feel it.

But Crane’s is a hit-or-miss method, and I find, to vary the cliche, that a little of it goes a long way. The more extended poems continue to elude me, though I think I probably love “Voyages,” the collection’s triumphant conclusion. Mostly the shorter and earlier poems are my favorites, though.

“Black Tambourine,” for instance, is a misguided stab at racial solidarity, but nevertheless a dense statement of a genuine historical perspective, which is a useful thing to have:

The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow of a bottle,
And a roach spans a crevice in the floor.

I think the judgment is “tardy” because, in Crane’s view, the black man is only the latest or most explicit instance of the social exclusion to which the modern poet testifies. The problems with that self-serving notion hardly need elaboration—yet if one reverses the priority in the metonymy (from black man/poet to poet/black man) so that the text redefines racism as the abjection of the black man in the same terms in which the poet is also abjected (licentiousness, laziness, primitivism, etc.), then it makes a certain sense, and a more charitable reading is possible.

“At Melville’s Tomb” pays tribute to Crane’s precursor in death and seafaring and homoeroticism and imagination:

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.

The first line and a half of this concluding stanza show how aphoristic Crane can be, demonstrate his love not only of Melville but of Dickinson. What better tribute to a writer who could navigate the sea but also what was beyond the farthest tide?

I don’t understand a word of the poem “Paraphrase,” and yet I feel it describes an experience I must have had, something to do with sleeping and waking, dreaming and trying to remember the dream, with maybe a hint of the masturbatory? I don’t know, here is the final stanza:

As, when stunned in that antarctic blaze,
Your head, unrocking to a pulse, already
Hallowed by air, posts a white paraphrase
Among bruised roses on the papered wall.

I have read every poem in the volume at least twice and some many more times than that, but I need to go on re-reading “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” and “Voyages,” not to mention “Wine Menagerie” and “Repose of Rivers.”

My two favorite poems are probably “Garden Abstract” and “Emblems of Conduct.” I want to discuss the latter poem at a later date, probably in connection with Bloom, so let’s end in the garden:

The apple on its bough is her desire,—
Shining suspension, mimic of the sun.
The bough has caught her breath up, and her voice,
Dumbly articulate in the slant and rise
Of branch on branch above her, blurs her eyes.
She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers.

And so she comes to dream herself the tree,
The wind possessing her, weaving her young veins,
Holding her to the sky and its quick blue,
Drowning the fever of her hands in sunlight.
She has no memory, nor fear, nor hope
Beyond the grass and shadows at her feet.

This poem is a little guide (an “abstract”) to Crane’s poetry, counseling a refusal of the desire for knowledge that would make any poetry a matter of allegory. Don’t desire to consume the poem, but rather become the poem, chant the poem, let the poem possess you. Crane boldly re-writes Genesis to find the source of the Fall in the desire for knowledge, and he redeems Eve by turning her into Daphne, rebuke to the arrogant Apollonian poet, just as he had conflated Christ with Dionysus in “Lachrymae Christi.” But even to advance such an advocacy for non-meaning, Crane had to invoke tradition, which is to say meaning. And it is no wonder that a philistine like myself, lost in novel-world, would prefer such a poem with its foregrounded narrative and meta-narrative.

Have I read Hart Crane? I don’t know what it would mean to read Hart Crane. More to the point, Hart Crane doesn’t know what it would mean to read Hart Crane. And I will not deny that some part of me would rather read Dante or Eliot or a novel, but I suspect White Buildings will linger in my mind, or—Bakhtin might approve—my mouth.

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