Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.
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 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.

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Literary Fiction: To Self-Publish or Not?

If American literature had been left wholly in the hands of established publishers—Ticknor and Fields, for instance—Longfellow might have remained our greatest poet. But Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, had Leaves of Grass printed, at his own expense, in 1855—he even set most of the type himself. Likewise, if Virginia Woolf had continued to rely on her half-brother (and erstwhile molester) Gerald Duckworth to disseminate her fiction through his established publishing house, she might have continued the fine Forsterean realism of her early novels rather than revolutionizing modern literature with Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s OwnThe Waves, and more, all published by the Hogarth Press, so named for Hogarth House, the private residence where the Woolfs literally kept their own printing press in the dining room. Like Whitman, Woolf often set her own type, and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, contributed cover illustrations.

Mrs_Dalloway

In her brief against the self-publishing of literary fiction, Ros Barber claims, “Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.” I do know what she means. Self-publishing’s reputation as the preserve of cranks and pornographers is not exactly undeserved. There are problems with exalting the gatekeepers, however. Literary history offers many examples—I have given two in the above paragraph—of gatekeepers’ inability to recognize merit, either because of a too-cautious focus on supposed profitability or an excessive concern for outmoded notions of decorum. I have heard people lament that Ulysses could not be published today in the profit-driven and experiment-averse marketplace. But Ulysses was not able to be “published” the first time around either, in the sense of its being supported by a mainstream or respectable American or British press; it was printed by Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach and advertised to prospective consumers by individual subscription on a model not unlike today’s Patreon-funded art and literature.

Success in the literary—or any other—mainstream generally depends on playing by certain rules, all of them contingent, some of them more dubious than others. While I think it is juvenile to advocate “break[ing] every rule,” to quote Carole Maso (as if there would be some virtue in running stop signs!), I think that in art, where originality or at least vitality is prized, we do want an outside perspective on these fabricated rules of ours from time to time. That is where ego comes in. Like it or not, the writers we admire for their boldness and originality, their perennially urgent voices, were not shy, retiring, modest types.

LoG1856(frontis&title)_tif“Well and good,” I imagine the reply, “but you are not Walt Whitman.” No, and neither was Walt Whitman when he was hand-setting the type of his dirty free verse in a print shop in 1855: he was a nobody journalist whose idea of literature was not shared by the regnant literati, even though it would be shared—which nobody, including him, knew at the time—by the succeeding century.

Fortune favors the bold. So does misfortune, of course, but without boldness, you’ll never find out which is to be your lot.

Self-publishing today is not extremely bold. There is no type to set, no large lead letter forms to haul across an ink-stained shop floor, though in my experience you will have to endure a long night’s struggle with the maddening tab settings in MS Word. To self-publish literary fiction, though, which is to say fiction meant to be formally complex and intellectually ambitious as well as entertaining or beautiful, is a gamble. You risk associating yourself in the eyes of your social superiors in an economy of prestige with conspiracy theorists and smut-peddlers. Your self-published work is not something you would put, if you are in academia, on your CV (though I’m not sure how publishing your own work is really all that much more disreputable than having it published by your friends in whatever hip coterie you happen to belong to; but I digress). Self-publishing in any event bespeaks a certain arrogance, but unfortunately this world so discourages most human effort that without arrogance very little would ever get done, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Portraits_and_Ashes_Cover_for_KindleRos Barber, writing in the British context, puts it well when she says that if you are a self-publisher, “You can forget Hay Festival and the Booker.” Reader, I’ve forgotten them already, but literary fiction does have one self-publishing success story, one Martian to boast of in prestige if not sales, in Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity. De La Pava, a devoted public defender, had an advantage I do not: a day job unconnected with literature and a consequent indifference to traditional forms of literary success. He only wanted to get the word out. Even though I probably care in my heart of hearts for the Booker more than he does, I have decided that I too just want my book in the world, on my own terms if on no one else’s. Watch this space.

John Marsh, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from ItselfIn Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself by John Marsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Walt We Trust is blessedly less reductive than its overeager title and subtitle make it sound. John Marsh is a professor at Penn State specializing in American poetry and the literature and theory of labor and working-class movements; his view of Whitman, therefore, focuses on the poet’s politics, with a particular emphasis on how his work can be construed as a critical response to capitalist culture. Whitman was the first canonical American poet to be born to the working class, Marsh emphasizes. His politics were progressive for their time—he belonged to the anti-slavery left wing of the Democratic Party—and his poetry, in its aspiration toward universal sympathy, more radical than that. To explore Whitman’s views and their contemporary relevance, Marsh divides his book into four main chapters. In each, he visits a location that is either directly related to Whitman’s life or that reflects on the poet’s themes, and each treats a central ill in American culture that Whitman’s poetry might cure: death, debt, sex, and political polarization.

The first chapter concerns Whitman’s spiritual or ontological optimism—his belief that, because all things are made of the same circulating atoms, there can be no death but only constant renewal. As an explication of Whitman’s philosophy and its grounding in nineteenth-century science, the chapter is useful, but Marsh’s postmodern discomfort with spirituality of any kind makes it an odd opener. The much stronger second chapter explicates Whitman’s nuanced and sensible, though still sadly uncommon, economic views, which can be summed up as follows: money was made to serve humanity; humanity was not made to serve money. Whitman allows the need in a decent society for enough wealth to free citizens from economic anxiety so they can pursue higher goals, even as he insists that to seek wealth and prosperity as such is to mistake a means (money) for an end (a good life, however defined). The third chapter is likewise compelling; framed with rueful comedy by Marsh’s uncomfortable visit to a central PA strip club, it argues persuasively that Whitman’s celebratory and bodily poetics chart a middle path between the nineteenth century’s debilitating sexual shame and the twenty-first century’s enervating sexual shamelessness. Finally, the fourth chapter movingly narrates Whitman’s service as wound-dresser during the Civil War and explains the potential for Whitmanian comradely love and solidarity to reunify our atomized and polarized society.*

Still, Marsh is perhaps a better scholarly than popular writer, despite his memoir-structure’s appeal to Whitmanian personal poetics: for me, the standout parts of this book were its two interludes, which, sans memoir or polemic, address the biographical questions of whether Whitman was a socialist and whether he was a gay man. Marsh’s command of social and intellectual history allows him to answer both questions very subtly. He concludes that Whitman was a socialist in values but not in systematic political theory, and that, while neither his behavior nor his writings depart very far from conventional Victorian sexual ideology, his sometimes seemingly overmastering love of men bespeaks, if not “homosexuality” (i.e., an identity), then “queerness” (i.e., a variability of desire and identity). On the last point, Marsh even somewhat boldly argues that Whitman’s call for “adhesiveness” or “manly love” among citizens is more radical the less sexual it is, because it allows us to imagine an affective union with our fellow citizens that might incite more care and inspire more equality than any external state-socialist measures could. That Whitman could write of such love without hostility or suspicion—Marsh points out that the main aspect of his work thought obscene by his contemporaries were those portraying sex between men and women—makes me wonder if the nineteenth century did not have its own version of queerness, enabled paradoxically by its suppression of genital sexuality as a topic for public discourse: with intercourse off the table, you could speak or write much more freely of every other form of love and desire.

In Walt We Trust is published by a Marxist press and Marsh writes overtly as a leftist, but he seems to hope to arrive at a non-doctrinaire affective politics, bypassing argument through poetry’s power to inspire and envision a better life. Quoting Tony Judt, Christopher Lasch, Chris Hedges, and Andrea Dworkin, Marsh appears to be a kind of left-conservative, suspicious of liberal individualism in any form, whether economic (as favored by the right) or cultural and sexual (as favored by the left); a belief that we need to channel our energies into community over individuality and to focus on needs over desires animates his often chastened prose. No exuberant Transcendentalist attempt to unite these polarities seems possible in the present, at least not when starting from such a left politics. What would Whitman think of that? Not being the Whitman scholar that Marsh is, I am not entirely sure; but the gentle sadness of the Civil War poems, their abandonment of exhortation, their eloquent witness, hints at the proper task of poetry in a time of crisis. From “The Wound Dresser”:

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

Marsh’s attention to that final question—along with his judicious scholarship—makes In Walt We Trust worth reading.

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* Speaking of Whitman’s selfless ministrations to the war-wounded: I spend a fair amount of time in these reviews defending authors who depart, in the life or the work, from conventional or even unconventional morality, but I share Marsh’s relief in contemplating Whitman—a great writer who was also, by all accounts, a good person. There is no need for these to go together, and I even think some personal or political immorality can be, like it or not, a passport to otherwise inaccessible literary territory; but it is heartening to know that you can write your country’s greatest poetry even as you behave with exemplary kindness and decency.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Today, in honor of Halloween, the Paris Review is running an 1872 epistolary exchange between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman. Sympathy between the authors of Leaves of Grass and Dracula is not as incongruous as it seems, given certain obvious sociopolitical realities—it makes sense for a budding Irish author to look up to a bard of national freedom, and students of the homoerotic and the onanistic will find much to ponder in Stoker’s letter (“I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea”)—but there is also more of a literary connection than meets the eye.

Stoker affirms Whitman’s values in the letter:

One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—“the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

But doesn’t he affirm them still more decisively in 1897’s Dracula? This novel’s Victorian heterosexual marriage plot is derailed by the archaic threat of an aristocratic despot who comes out of the mists of the East to menace the metropolis, and who indeed enters the “new port” of modern England on the “weather-beaten”—also vampire-beaten—and eventually shipwrecked Demeter on a journey to the underworld in reverse. But Dracula eventually narrates the defeat of the Old World by a not un-Whitmanian combination of modern science, modern communications, and modernized gender and sexual roles: the New Woman represented by Mina Harker and the cosmopolitan Männerbund of vampire-hunters evoking Whitman’s homophiliac democracy.

I use the Stoker/Whitman connection to introduce my review of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a 1902 Sherlock Holmes mystery by Stoker’s distant relative, Arthur Conan Doyle, because The Hound‘s narrative is superficially similar to Dracula‘s in its effects. In fact, Doyle goes even further than Stoker in that he not only shows the defeat of the supernatural by the powers of reason and progress but also tells us that these powers can expose the supernatural itself as the criminal imposture and sham that it really is. For Stoker, the old mysteries can be beaten by the typewriter, the telegraph, modern medicine, feminism, and the city; for Doyle, ratiocination proves the mystery never to have been a mystery at all, just the self-serving myth of a justly dying social order.

You probably already know the novel’s story: Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead at his estate on the moors of southwest England. His physician worries that he was frightened to death by a supernatural hound, which has supposedly menaced his family since the seventeenth century, when local lore tells of the spectral canine’s dispatch of the rapist Cavalier Hugo Baskerville (“a most wild, profane, and godless man”) after he traded “his body and soul to the Powers of Evil” so that he could kidnap a young female neighbor. The famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson are enlisted to solve the mystery, which brings Watson (our narrator, as is usual with the Holmes stories) from London to the moor to watch over the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry, a man reared in North America who plans to modernize his inheritance with electric light and more. Holmes has ostensibly sent Watson to manage the case in his stead, but in the course of time we learn that he has been watching the proceedings from the neolithic huts on the moor; by the novel’s final third he joins the fight to save Sir Henry from whatever menaces him. I will not go into the complicated and red-herring-laden plot (which features an escaped convict, bathetic servants, a Dickensian grotesque obsessed with lawsuits, a scandalous love affair, domestic violence, lepidoptery, and more), but the novel’s upshot is that there is no supernatural hound, only a dog painted with phosphorous by a brilliant but decidedly material criminal intent on having the Baskerville property to himself.

Detective fiction invokes the Gothic only to usurp it here at the turn of the twentieth century; we have nothing to fear but human evil, and this can be contained and controlled by human intelligence (in the person of Holmes) and action (in the person of Watson). Even more than Dracula, with its triumphant modernity, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an anti-horror horror novel.[1]

The rational moral of the story does not prevent the novel from indulging in the atmospheric, however. Watson as narrator is usually only serviceable in his prose, often just conveying informative dialogue in the true anti-aesthetic spirit of genre fiction, but the moor and environs, which include jutting crags and a fatal bog, bring out a strain of lyricism that makes the novel more memorable for its haunted pathos than for its exorcising logos:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their gray stone huts against the scarred hill-sides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

And how seriously do we need to take Doyle/Holmes’s thesis against superstition anyway? When I say that detective fiction usurps the Gothic, I am saying that we replace one myth with another (unavoidably, as humanity lives on and by myth). The novel is somewhat overt about this fact. Why else is Holmes hiding out among the shades of neolithic man if not to associate his own quasi-mystical powers with the archaic? Holmes’s powers are indeed mystical, because though he claims them to be “deductive,” most commentators observe that he rather works, poet-wise, by flying inductive leaps, like the characteristic fin-de-siècle genius that he is.

Holmes is a kind of white magician[2], dispelling the hound’s dark evil through a primal power of good incarnated in a city detective with a revolver and smoking habit. When Holmes moves in disguise around the moor, like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt or Odysseus on his homecoming to Ithaca, we are in the realm of lordly myth, renovated for serialization and democratic dissemination to the newly literate masses. Holmes is all spirit, Watson all matter, and together they fuse in an alchemical wedding to form the complete man, a new figure for a new age, which I imagine Walt Whitman, had he lived long enough, would have hailed as the fulfillment of his progressive prophecy.
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[1] In his sometimes rather Kinbotean notes to this edition (as if I’m one to talk!), Christopher Frayling observes that Watson’s mixed narration—which includes straightforwardly retrospective narration, epistolary narrative when he writes to Holmes, and excerpts from his diary—is a nod to “the convention of presenting horror stories in the form of collections of documents such as letters, diaries and reports—Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, most recently Dracula” which was “a way of dividing the authorial voice into different registers.” It was also a way of containing the horror—or, more broadly, the unconscious and repressed—with rational discourse. By the time of modernism, the repressed returns via textuality itself—comically, not horrifically, in Ulysses—and horror will pick up the hint by the end of the twentieth century, so that recent horror fiction and film, such as House of Leaves and The Ring, show supernatural evil to be transmitted through the texts that were supposed to contain them.

[2] Though the late-Victorian aesthete’s amorality in which Holmes dabbles may trouble my argument a bit; he allows that he endangers Sir Henry to solve the mystery, caring less for lives than for his successful rearrangement of life patterns known as detection. But his benevolent magic’s having something of the inhuman about it also reinforces my claim for its otherworldliness. Of the racial, rather than occult, connotation of “white,” see my review of The Sign of Four, an imperial romance inside a detective novel.

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Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems

Howl and Other PoemsHowl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this—and I don’t think I’ve ever read this volume as a volume before, though I’ve read most of its contents, some multiple times over the years—to see if my longstanding judgment upon it holds up to maturer reconsideration. Stereotypically, one is supposed to be besotted with Ginsberg in adolescence and reject him in maturity, but this stereotype doesn’t apply in my case, and I doubt it’s even broadly true anymore.

For one thing, the title poem has endured, even in academia where it appears on more syllabi than you might imagine (and in The Norton Anthology of American Literature), so it deserves careful scrutiny.* And for another, I personally thought in adolescence that the Beats were slovenly ravers and ranters, promoters of a lifestyle brand for would-be bohemians who wanted the druggie trappings of counterculture credibility without having to learn to write—or to develop a cultural critique with any nuance or care; but maybe I was just a priggish young fogey. So does my judgment hold up? And does Howl deserve its increasingly secure place in the canon?

The title poem is certainly full of arresting imagery that gives a picture of a whole era seen from the perspective of a disturbed and deracinated demimonde. The poem’s protagonists are “the best minds of [the poet’s] generation”—essentially, the artistic class, self-exiles from the prosperous postwar working and middle classes who refused to bow to the Protestant work ethic and capitalist standards of productivity and procreation, and who were, in Ginsberg’s account, both ennobled and destroyed by their marginality and the appetites it gave rise to, an appetite for drugs and other forms of maddening psychedelia above all. Ginsberg is scrupulously clear about this in the poem, as he carefully distinguishes his “angelheaded hipsters” from “the negro streets” they prowl. So the poem is more self-aware and possibly (it is a slim possibility) self-critical than I gave it credit for being in my youth.

Howl is formally interesting as a structure: the entire long first part is one sentence formed by a series of descriptive clauses beginning with “who” and modifying “minds” in the first line’s independent clause, a simple but compelling syntactical invention. And the list of these minds’ attributes, which seemingly asks to be read quickly as if in obsessional raving, imposes by force and accumulation the poem’s visionary landscape. The poem’s second section is an apostrophic set of accusations against “Moloch,” denounced over and over as the destroyer of Ginsberg’s heroes; Moloch is the administered society of postwar capitalist America, devouring lives in its robotic maw of loveless, sexless, bodiless rationality: “Moloch whose name is the Mind!” (This section was partially inspired by Lynd Ward, for whom see here and here.) The final section asserts solidarity with the poem’s dedicatee, languishing in a psychiatric hospital: “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland…” The poem is not carelessly written: it advances by initially meaningless but actually apt combinations of words, nearly surreal: “unshaven rooms,” “paint hotels,” “pubic beards,” “peyote solidities,” etc., a technique reminiscent not only of Whitman’s startling combinations (“loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine”) but also those of Hopkins (“Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”).

There is really no single line or set of lines to quote, though—Howl and other Ginsberg poems work by the power of their whole presence or they don’t work. Speaking of English-class pedagogy, Howl is not a poem that can be parsed either New Critically or deconstructively because it is not held together by paradox or torn apart by aporia; Marxism and psychoanalysis will bounce off it because its politics and its sexuality (“cock and endless balls”) are up on the surface. It is a process and an energy that is enacted in its recitation rather than strictly read. Perhaps to damn with faint praise, I respect this as an intention and an achievement; but still, it’s a dangerous thing to denounce the mind itself as a child-devouring god.

Ginsberg cites Blake, but where is Blake’s complicated dialectic between innocence and experience? (Ginsberg seems to think that experience can be innocent, which may be the trouble with his sexual politics—see my footnote.) He cites Whitman, but where is Whitman’s death-haunted despair, existential rather than sociopolitical in nature (compare the anguished “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” to the simplistic and sermonic “Sunflower Sutra”), where is Whitman’s love and pity for those unlike himself (from the voyeuristic spinster in Song of Myself to the Civil War soldiers tended in and by “The Wound-Dresser”)? Other poets with similarly dystopic attitudes toward modernity still write rings around Ginsberg. These poems, whether in the pesudo-Biblical denunciations of Howl or the tiresome sarcasm of “America,” offer nothing as complicated as Yeats’s figuration of revolution as an obdurate stillness, a stone in the stream, in “Easter, 1916” or Eliot’s literally impotent longing after a shattered tradition in The Waste Land.

Poems are not novels; they do not need to feature contending voices or disputing ideologies. The lyric poem after Petrarch or after Wordsworth (depending on your literary historiography) is the utterance of a single sensibility; but it should be an interesting, complicated sensibility at variance with itself. Yeats said that out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, while out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. Ginsberg is too impressed with himself and his elective self-mythologized generation to make poetry in this sense. In branding it this way, in preparing the way for the capitalization of dissent by peddling simplicities, he becomes part of the Moloch he claims to despise.

To end on a more affirmative note, I do like “A Supermarket in California.” Its depiction of the supermarket as an almost utopian place, a temple of abundance where the poet may cruise Whitman and encounter fellow citizens even “at night,” a bower of “peaches” and “penumbras”—this is all more interesting than Alex Jones-style ravings against “Moloch.” It is a sweet poem whose emotion feels earned and whose energy is spontaneous.
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* By the way, for those of you interested in “harrowing tales from PC academe” clickbait: the last whispers in the academic corridor I heard about the teaching of Howl reported frustration or at least surprise at certain responses. One student rebuked a teacher for not emphasizing Ginsberg’s importance to queer culture or the poem’s status as queer discourse—for, in short, falsely universalizing or all-lives-mattering the poem and thus being insensitive to the particularity of its subcultural context and its influence on the broader culture. (It is somewhat difficult to imagine, where I am anyway, a student protesting on similar grounds about a neglect of these poems’ Jewish context, despite Ginsberg’s intimations: “America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.”) Another student reproved Ginsberg for being a “baby-rapist” who ought to go unread, this in somewhat exaggerated reference, presumably, to the poet’s support for NAMBLA. I was reminded of the confrontation between Ginsberg and Andrea Dworkin, and reminded too that uneasily united under the banner of progressive counterculture are hopelessly irreconcilable concepts of the good life:

IN her new memoir, “Heartbreak,” Andrea Dworkin describes a dust-up she had with Allen Ginsberg at the bar mitzvah of a mutual friend’s child. The two writers were very publicly on opposite sides in a contentious debate: Dworkin was rejoicing in a recent Supreme Court decision that, in her words, “had ruled child pornography illegal”; she saw Ginsberg as “a pedophile . . . exceptionally aggressive about . . . his constant pursuit of under-age boys.” Atypically anxious to avoid a scene, Dworkin tried hard to elude Ginsberg at the party, but, she says, he would not leave her alone. “He followed me everywhere I went. . . . He photographed me constantly with a vicious little camera he wore around his neck. . . . Ginsberg told me that he had never met an intelligent person who had the ideas I did. . . . I couldn’t get rid of Allen.” Finally the encounter got really ugly when Ginsberg complained that the political right wanted to throw him in jail. “Yes, they’re very sentimental,” Dworkin replied. “I’d kill you.”

I actually once taught Howl myself, during my first year teaching; I was a T.A. in an American lit. survey designed by an older professor who included the poem on his syllabus (again, it was and is in the Norton). Not knowing what to do with the poem in my discussion section, I used a tactic I sometimes still resort to when teaching poetry: we go around the room and every student takes one line of verse and finds some comment to make on it, whether about its form or theme or context. With this method, everyone gets a chance to talk, and many conceptual windows open upon the text. Anyway, this happened almost ten years ago, so all I remember is that the student who had to read the line that included the phrase “pubic beards” pronounced it as “public beards.” Unusually, I had the presence of mind to characterize this in the moment as a “reverse Freudian slip,” which the class—and the student herself—seemed to find amusing.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Sublimity Listed: Bloom’s 12 American Writers

Harold Bloom has a new book coming out—rather like my grandmother, he’s been falsely prophesying his imminent demise for almost my entire lifetime. Since the end will come for us all eventually, I’m always glad to see old Bloom fighting the good fight.* Now he lists his 12 authors who best exemplify “the American Sublime” (see the link for explanations):

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Twain

Frost

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Crane

Where to begin the parlor game of contesting and correcting? From an identity politics perspective, we have one woman and no people of color (reactionary), though the list is also somewhere between 25% and 45% queer (progressive).

Bloom, castigating identity politics in every other creed and ethnos, does not practice it in favor of his own: there are no Jewish writers on the list. No Catholics either, unless Eliot counts. I suppose those are defensible choices, given Bloom’s selection criteria: “the American Sublime,” a dialectic of allegory and antinomianism more or less invented by Emerson**, is an agon with the Puritan inheritance, thus largely an affair of renegade Protestants (which Eliot also was, whatever else he was).

But even with those cultural strictures in place, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth should surely make the cut—O’Connor for the way her Catholic sense of order frames, ironizes, and redeems the ecstatic American religion; and Roth for his ferocious embrace of the antinomianism in our spiritual life, along with his realistic and rueful sense, informed by immigrant experience and Jewish tradition, of all the obligations that make antinomianism an impossible legacy, if a necessary irritant.

It seems to me that the list, terminating as it does with modernism, would come to a far more natural climax with Ralph Ellison: he was the one who put it all together, synthesizing the Emersonian creed and its Melvillean critique in the jazz-inflected mythic-method idiom of high modernism, as well as opening the American Sublime tradition to hitherto-excluded groups. Ellison assured for at least another two or three generations the continuity of the American novel, that allegorical and romantic odd national variant that is so at odds with its European counterpart.

Bloom hates Poe, to a comical degree, so of course he would not put him on such a list, regarding him no doubt as a French author anyway. But Bloom also dislikes Eliot, and Eliot courted the French tradition in ways Poe never did or could: here I think placing Eliot on the list rather than excluding him is Bloom’s aggressive act. He gathers the poet to a tradition he would not have wanted to join: The Waste Land, against all odds, is a great American poem. Eliot would make my list as well.

Hart Crane is Bloom’s sentimental favorite but means nothing to me. LikeBloom’s protege and fellow controversialist Camille Paglia, I find Mark Twain a minor author (in the old-fashioned, not the Deleuzean, sense) and his schtick obnoxious. I could be persuaded that Robert Frost is a more complex and troubling figure than we learned about in middle school, but he still does not speak to me in any great way. Is he not a verse Thoreau? And was Thoreau not a superior poet even in prose?

Note the eclipse of Hemingway and Fitzgerald: “Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner” was once a unit, but Faulkner has clearly outpaced his rivals, extending an influence in space and time, all the way to contemporary China, that the other two can’t match. I agree with their exclusion. The first six authors on the list would be hard to quarrel with. So, were I to make my own “canon of the American Sublime” according to Bloom’s criteria, it would look like this:

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Ellison

O’Connor

Roth

One could imagine still more writers to include: Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy. Maybe even that old fascist, Pound. On the other hand, there are many fine American writers who fit very uneasily into this American Sublime category: Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport, etc. These are the perils of a national canon. But I believe Bloom has identified a genuine and perhaps dominant strain in American writing, even if there are others equally valuable.

I always enjoy the provocation of a good list; it focuses the mind on the identification of values, and that is always needed—needed all the more, in fact, if we are good postmodernists and agree that values are highly contingent and permanently up for discussion.

*Speaking of “the good fight,” by which I mean that against precursors and against time, I highly recommend Daniel Green’s lucid explication and contextual endorsement of the literary theory that made Bloom’s name.

**The phrase comes, I believe, from the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens about how to reconcile visionary intensity with quotidian experience (if I am reading the rather cryptic poem correctly).

Goodreads Reviews September/October

My Goodreads reviews for the last month or so, novels and poetry and comics.

Daniel Clowes, Ghost World

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, All-Star Superman

J. M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Charles Brocken Brown, Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Song of MyselfSong of Myself by Walt Whitman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whitman is one of those writers whose merits can get lost in their reputations; you forget how good he is when you’re not reading him. His role as the mascot of a kind of kitschy Americana—especially ridiculous in this time of decline and fragmentation—overshadows his saving weirdness, his poetic originality:

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid . . . . nothing could overlay it;
For it the nebula cohered to an orb . . . . the long slow strata piled to rest it on . . . . vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

While this evokes Whitman’s whole cosmo-ethico-politico position—roughly, a bright pantheism in which all that lives shares in the divine, mixed with a gnosticism that says each soul is eternal—anybody can have a homespun theology; but not everybody can imagine their own soul as an embryo existing from the beginning of the universe and carried reverently in the mouth of a dinosaur till it could be implanted in a womb.

There is plenty of sermonizing and exhortation here, best experienced as the expression of a mood, a sensibility:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud

My favorite thing about this poem, though, is less its metaphysics or its politics than its sly humor—

And as to you corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweetscented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips . . . . I reach to the polished breasts of melons.

—its vague but unmistakable eroticism—

Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.

—its anthology of flash-fiction-like “cases,” of various people from spinsters to slaves to a naval crew at war to northern hunters that Walt sympathizes with—

I anchor my ship for a little while only,
My messengers continually cruise away or bring their returns to me.
I go hunting polar furs and the seal . . . . leaping chasms with a pike-pointed staff . . . . clinging to topples of brittle and blue.

I love the consonance and assonance and alliteration, the subtle rhythms, that keep the free verse from falling into prose. I love Whitman more as the inspirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins than as that of Allen Ginsberg. This poem seems like an effusion, is pitched as a “barbaric yawp,” but is a careful sport with words and as much the utterance of a dramatic character—”Walt Whitman, American, one of the roughs, a cosmos”—as it is any kind of polemic, an examination of the artistic character, the veiled soul, the voyeur at the boys in the river, God’s spy. He seems to want to redefine poetry so that it is a fierce bodily communion, as here—

You there, impotent, loose in the knees, open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you,
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,
I am not to be denied . . . . I compel . . . . I have stores plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow.

—or here—

It is you talking just as much as myself . . . . I act as the tongue of you,
It was tied in your mouth . . . . in mine it begins to be loosened.

—but the fact is that—

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.

—because—

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

A great poem: “My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality…” How much more interesting the questions than the answers.

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