Hart Crane is the subject of the following letters written by Jacob Moore to his Aunt Cindy. The letters are part of a writing assignment I gave to my Modern Poetry students at BGSU.
In addition to exploring Crane’s sexual identity and how it affected the man and his poems, Jacob also examines Crane’s “ability to break through the despair in life and progress beyond to ecstasy.” –TW
I asked Jacob to write his own bio. Here is what he said:
It is so silly to write about oneself. You can ignore the false starts, but I figured I’d include them for humor, and for you to see what happens when I’m posed with the question, “Who are you?”
Jacob Moore is the Self who Acts*.
Jacob Moore is the I AM I.
Jacob Moore is a sentence that ends with a period.
Jacob Moore is also Jacob Moore.
Jacob Moore is currently a senior at BGSU majoring in Creative Writing with a minor in English. He studies Rosicrucian and arcane philosophy, and is training to become a Kundalini yoga instructor. When not knee-deep in esoteric tomes, he focuses on social activism and bringing conscious awareness into everyday life. His penultimate goal is to distill the whole of esoteric cosmology into something actually comprehensible by the lay person, and also to become a librarian.
* That is to say, radiates outward
Dear Aunt Cindy,
I hope you’re doing well—you are receiving this letter because in our Modern Poetry class, instead of writing essays, we’re to write letters about a poet (chosen for us by our teacher), and send them to a friend or relative.
The poet I was given is Hart Crane. He was a poet in the Modernist period, which peaked in the 1920’s. As I read more, I find that, even though the time didn’t have a real established gay culture, Crane was constantly struggling with his desires and the pain that comes from those unexpressed desires. I wonder if she chose this poet for me for this reason? He grew up with what some say was an extreme dissatisfaction with his life, which is understandable. Especially with the gay poets, there is an acute agony in the inability to fit within the normal sexual schema—one feels alienated and completely separate. Walt Whitman was the same way, and Garcia Lorca, and what this seems to do is help the poet reach a transcendent state. You should look up the poem “Royal Palm,” in which he takes a palm tree and compares it to his mother (he is known for such odd symbols—who else would compare a palm tree to his mother? It certainly doesn’t seem to be an appealing analogy), but the last stanza is extremely striking:
A fountain at salute, a crown in view—
Unshackled, casual of its azure height
As though it soared suchwise though heaven too.”
The second line there, “a fountain at salute” is just so fresh, and the last two lines turn, changing it from just a tree to something that touches on immortality.
This is the strength of poetry, certainly.
Dear Aunt Cindy,
So, for this letter we are instructed to write about the poet’s biography and a poem or two.
First, Hart Crane was born in 1899, in Garrettsville, Ohio, which is a place not too far from our home in Newton Falls—and his father was the one who invented Life Savers. All I can think of is how horrid it was to grow up in those small Ohio towns as a gay guy. After his parents separated, he left school at 17 and tried to work for a while, but found himself to be completely unsatisfied with his life, and then finally went to New York and met a man called Emil Opffer; this inspired him to write, but still the tragic seemed to be the glue uniting his life.
Along with these feelings (for men), one of the most difficult things is that of the want—the desire—to fit in, to be “normal” and just live. I still am frustrated with how—in the field of Love—things are stacked against me. It’s depressing and the one true thing that brings me down. But, through his poems, one can learn to break through the despair and actually be free. He sadly died when he was 32 from suicide. He jumped off a boat in the Caribbean Sea.
I’m reading a review in the Boston Review called “Grand Failure,” and I really think it touches deeply on his work. I really like one of the first things the author remarks on: “Crane didn’t know how to restrain himself (we find the same pattern in his drinking too).” This really reminds me of Theodore Roethke, another ecstatic poet who was possibly bipolar or manic depressive. Roethke also turned to drink.
And while I have never turned to drink to cope, what I do that hides me from that pain is lose myself in my dreams and phantasms and illusions. This reviewer portrays Crane mostly like a child, “one who begins a drawing and, showing his mother the beginning lines, is inspired by her praise to continue.” He would send unfinished poems to friends for advice. The reviewer praises him in “Praise for an Urn”
“Still, having in mind golden hair
I cannot see that broken brow
And miss the dry sound of bees
Stretching across a lucid space”
The reviewer revels in the use of the words “lucid” and “dry” and I agree, but then he goes on to say that the poem (a six part series) “Voyages” was too banal about mortality and too sentimental about Love. I disagree completely, especially when the fact is that this series was inspired by one of his gay lovers. The first section immediately reaches out and seizes me; the last stanza warns gay men against the “cruel bottom of the sea,” which might be interpreted as the harsh cruelty of Love or the heart.
“O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
fondle your shells and sticks, bleached <—- obviously sexual
by time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.”
I leave you with this, Much Love
Dear Aunt Cindy,
In my previous letters, I more focused on the homosexual aspects of his poetry, but, after I read his biography again, something really stood out. Rather than using the homosexual context as a means to its own end, it rather was emphasizing another, stronger point in his poetry—that of the ability to break through the despair in life and progress beyond to ecstasy.
In class we have been discussing poets of ecstasy, like Whitman, Dickenson, and Roethke, and how they seem to take the binary of birth and death (or sex and death or love and death), and break it down, finding ecstasy behind it, rather than just a hopelessness that most people find. In his biography, Hart Crane states that he really writes poetry “as a counterstatement to The Wasteland,” a poem by T. S. Eliot. I feel that Crane, at the very least, wanted to give hope to everyone else. If he couldn’t make it (and he clearly didn’t), perhaps others could.
His poem “Black Tambourine,” focuses on a black man, dwelling in something he calls the “mid-kingdom.” The man is compared to a beast, and Aesop (Aesop’s fables) is invoked in the poem, because the black man is forced into that space by his oppressors. The last stanza is most poignant
“The black man, forlorn in the cellar,
Wanders in some mid-kingdom, dark that lies,
Between his tambourine, stuck on the wall,
And in Africa, a carcass quick with flies.”
Not only do I feel that this is indeed about racism, and how racism puts people between a rock and a hard place, but also about his own experiences with homosexuality. The last line reflects the embroiled and raw sexual nature of homosexuality and the cellar, the degenerate place foisted upon him/them: something dirty and, almost in a way, hidden and secret. A literal reading is straightforward and clear, but if one takes the images as symbols, the meaning changes entirely. Even in the second stanza, when he brings forth Aesop, the tone changes, and with the inclusion of the word “Heaven,” a light seems to burst forth from the poem: “Aesop, driven to pondering, found / Heaven with the tortoise and the hare; /Fox bush and sow ear top his grave /and mingling incantations on the air.”
There is hope; it shows us that it is entirely possible to escape this oppression: to transcend it and become “incantations on the air.” I hope he doesn’t mean the release that comes in death; this would not be an answer I would be satisfied with at all.
And in part (section) III of Voyages, there is a stanza “and where death, if shed/ Presumes no carnage, but this single change,–/ Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn/ The silken skilled transmemberment of song;”
Here Crane seems to say that if we remove death, and death is an illusion, we can see what truly lies behind it, more life, wrapped tightly like a spool of thread. Also, as an aside, only Hart Crane could use the word “transmemberment” in a poem.
And with section III, as with most all of his other work, we can see him stepping beyond—Hart did Not like this world—at all. There is no reason, then, why his poems would dwell in this world. He went looking for the veil that led to the behind-of-things, and he found it and he stepped through*. I just got the image of his death into the Caribbean seen as his final parting of that veil rather than simply a suicide. It is a fitting death, either way.
* I feel like a mediaeval monk, inserting a point like this, but, even at the beginning of III, it reads, “Infinite consanguinity,” words again that clearly characterize Hart, but also describe a unity that is possible within all of us. That is where his poems lead me and I hope you find the same pleasure in them.