ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 14

 - Hart Crane (cont.)


Hart Crane’s masterwork The Bridge is positioned as a response to the modernist aesthetics of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The visionary and specifically American aspects of the epic are stressed. Crane’s interest in myth and symbol, his inclusion and treatment of marginal figures, and his refiguring of the American hero are considered alongside his unique perspective on the role of imagination in the creation and shaping of history.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 14 - Hart Crane (cont.)

Chapter 1. Hart Crane Poem: “Voyages” [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: The Bridge. In order to get to The Bridge I want to go back and just say a few more things about “Voyages” and about Crane in general. In Crane’s letter to the distressed editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe – that prose selection included in the back of your book – Crane defends his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” and specifically defends what he calls his “recourse to the logic of metaphor.” What does “the logic of metaphor” mean for Crane? Well, he distinguishes his criteria from Monroe’s, on page 968. He says:

My poem may well be elliptical and actually obscure.. but in your criticism… you have stated your objections in terms that allow me… the privilege of claiming your ideas and ideals as theoretically, at least, quite outside the issues of my own aspirations. [And he says:] To put it more plainly, as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of… [well, that’s a misprint: it should be “words”] on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis), than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations…

Crane is talking here about putting a kind of priority in his poetry on connotation over denotation. He’s interested in the ways words relate to and through other words, before or in addition to the ways in which they relate to the things of the world. In this sense, Crane introduces us to a sense of poetry as a linguistic environment that is constructed through words relating among themselves in ways that play upon our imagination, systems of association that in effect solicit our contribution to complete the thought, all of which supposes and seeks a kind of special intimacy with us as readers, and gives us work to do.

I suggested that the sea is a kind of figure or metaphor in Crane’s work for this linguistic space: an imaginative space to which we are summoned. In a poem like “At Melville’s Tomb,” he’s concerned with specifically how messages are transported with, well, what he calls “the dice of drowned men’s bones.” You can understand the poem as an elegy for Melville. It’s also about reading Melville and getting his message; that is, reaching back into the past and becoming, for Melville, the kind of reader that Crane himself seeks as he describes it in his letter to Monroe.

In talking about “Voyages II,” I suggested that the – or “Voyages III,” rather, the third section of the poem – I suggested that the image of “infinite consanguinity” was in part an image of this linguistic mixing and promiscuity that Crane is interested in in poetry. In this poem, the mixing of words in poetry is analogized to the mixing of bodies of lovers. Love here is also like death because it’s a shattering experience through which the self is remade and changed with and through another. This is a process of transformation. It’s one that Crane calls “transmemberment,” which is a way of evoking not so much a sharing of identity, but rather some kind of exchange of it, which is an experience of the self changed and the self redeemed. In Crane’s eyes this is exactly what The Waste Land contemplates and draws back from; doesn’t embrace, turns away from. It’s what, in Crane, love promises. It’s what poetry, song promises. The space of the poem, which is like, as Crane imagines it, a space of love, is set apart from ordinary life. You might contrast the kind of song and singing that you find in this poem with Eliot’s love song for Prufrock.

Crane recovers in this poem a kind of heroic blank verse, the medium of heroic drama, and uses it for the speech of a poet-lover who celebrates the power of sound to make its own sense, through the affirming force of desire. He imagines this, again, as a kind of resurrection of some kind, what he talks about as what has to happen after The Waste Land. In this sense, Crane is talking about some kind of passage through death, and you can understand that death as Crane’s admission, as I suggested last time, of the illusory nature of rhetoric, of love itself, of the power of desire, which Crane is always realistic about, you could say. The poem, “Voyages,” treats – its theme is really the triumph of desire, even in defeat. That’s also the theme of “At Melville’s Tomb,” and it’s the grand theme of The Bridge.

Chapter 2. Hart Crane Poem: “The Bridge” [00:07:54]

The Bridge is Crane’s great poem about America. Let me bring up a picture of him. This is Crane in 1927 or ‘28. It’s unclear exactly when the photo was taken by Walker Evans, a great American photographer and Crane’s friend, on top of 110 Columbia Heights where Crane lived, in view of Manhattan and the bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. The Bridge is Crane’s great poem about America or about the idea of America, and I’ll say more about what that means in a moment. And it’s a reply, self-consciously so, to The Waste Land. I suggested that the shortness of The Waste Land was in some ways a kind of argument against epic in the modern world, an argument about the impossibility of epic vision in a culture which lacks shared myths, shared symbols. Against this lack Crane proposes the bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, as a kind of central organizing symbol for modern culture.

This is a picture of the bridge being built in the nineteenth century. It’s important that as Crane looks at the bridge as a modern symbol, that we remember that it wasn’t built in 1920. I’ve forgotten now the year in which it is, but it was at least, I think, sixty years old at this point. And you can see when Roebling’s bridge was first created, there’s no Manhattan skyline for it to reach to. When Crane turns to the bridge as a symbol of the modern, he’s already looking back to an earlier vision of the modern, if you like. And in doing so he is joining many other American artists.

This is a photograph by Walker Evans, who took many images of the bridge with its cables and Gothic arches, all of which play into Crane’s poems in complex ways. This is the very great poem, one of many – or [I mean] painting by Joseph Stella that appears in the Yale [Art] Gallery: a fantastic work, one that Crane hadn’t seen actually when he began The Bridge, but which in all sorts of ways is harmonious with his vision, including the ways in which the sublime vision that it offers includes darkness and, I would have to say, perhaps frightening or sinister elements. It is also importantly a moment in American art when artists like Stella, like Crane, are interested – here’s John Marin with another image, this one painted from the bridge – in which artists are creating a kind of idiom that involves and includes abstraction, shows us images of the world in realist representation that are being transformed into something semi-abstract and symbolic. Crane is very much involved in the same kind of activity as these artists. These are more images from Evans; these, of course, shot from underneath the bridge and showing it as a kind of abstract form rising into the New York skyline.

This is the title page of Crane’s poem as it appeared in the Black Sun edition, a limited edition in Paris in 1930, its first publication followed shortly thereafter by a publication in New York. Crane took the Brooklyn Bridge as a kind of symbol of a structure, the structure of a spiritual action, as he understood it, underpinning American history. It seemed to him to embody an idea that he saw variously embodied in American history. For Crane, American history is a series of new world visions, all of them versions or avatars of what he also calls Atlantis, the city sunk beneath the waves in Platonic myth that promises to return and return us to some kind of redeemed community. Atlantis is Crane’s name for a kind of promised relation to the world that’s been glimpsed but also lost. To aim at Atlantis, as the poem does, and as Crane says American history does, is to go interestingly, confusingly, simultaneously into the past and into the future; to rescue or recover something from history, promised for the future; and to bring that future into being. Crane understands the mythic work of the poem, his poem, as a kind of active crossing, one that has this chronological mission of going back into the past and forward into the future.

The title page here – you can’t make it out, but it’s clear in your anthology – carries an epigraph from The Book of Job: “From going to and fro in the earth, / and from walking up and down in it.” The epigraph from Job introduces these two motions as being essential to Crane’s imagination in the poem; that is, going to and fro, back and forth, and by going up and down. You can see these two motions, in fact, easily visualizable in the form of the bridge itself, which drives its pylons into the river and rises up in these Gothic structures in order to carry people back and forth across the river. The epigraph is also a kind of joke because Crane wrote this poem, like Job, tramping around across the Northeast from one apartment or house to another, or one couch to another; and wrote it in Europe and California and elsewhere, himself, Crane, being without a secure station in the poem, in the writing of the poem. Crane’s interest in the poem in hobos and marginals of many kinds, as well as with pioneers and other kinds of travelers, all represent figures of spiritual questers who are in a sense without a station in life but rather in motion, as Crane himself was.

This is the table of contents of the poem. It’s helpful, I think, to look at it because it’s confusing. The poem consists in this proem, which I’ll talk about in a few moments, where Crane actually dedicates his long poem, actually dedicates this poem to the Brooklyn Bridge – as if you could dedicate a poem to the bridge, to an object; a first section, called “Ave Maria,” which is spoken by Columbus – Columbus, not on his way to the New World but rather on his way back. He speaks to us on his way back, and it introduces the theme of carrying the message or the vision forward into the future. The question of how to retrieve or recover the vision of the New World is initially introduced there.

Then there’s a section called “Powhatan’s Daughter,” which refers to Pocahontas, invokes a vision of the American continent through a series of poems: “The Harbor Dance,” “Van Winkle,” “The River,” “The Dance,” and “Indiana,” which all explore various moments in the history of the conquering of the continent. There’s a section called “Cutty Sark” which introduces us to a drunken visionary sailor in a bar on Sand Street in Lower Manhattan. That figure seems to metamorphose into Walt Whitman in Section IV, “Cape Hatteras,” in a sense the center of the poem. “Cape Hatteras” is concerned with the invention of flight, and it links Whitman to, really, the whole history of American invention. There is a series of songs called “Three Songs”; another section called “Quaker Hill,” evoking a 1920s New York suburb, really, or Connecticut Hills, which brings us up to the present; as does the poem, “The Tunnel” – the tunnel being that most closely based on The Waste Land and describing a kind of infernal journey through the New York subways; and then finally “Atlantis,” a kind of visionary rhapsody that invokes the object of quest that the poem is concerned with.

The poem in this way charts various journeys westward and eastward, back and forth in time. Discovery means nothing without the relaying of the vision, the carrying it forward. The Bridge is concerned with, in these various sections, with a series of symbols, symbols that are very frequently vehicles or transports, from Columbus’s ship to the subway, to the Wright Brothers’ airplanes. Transport: this is, in a sense, the grand theme of The Bridge. The root meaning of metaphor is “to carry something over,” to transport it. For Crane, metaphor is as central a concept and activity as translation is for Pound. But in Crane the emphasis is on imaginative transformation. That’s really what metaphor has to offer. The central symbol of The Bridge, the bridge itself, you could understand as a metaphor for metaphor; a metaphor for a primary human capacity, the capacity to posit an object of desire – “Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars” – to posit an object of desire that expands the horizon of the real, what’s possible, and in so doing violates existing systems of cognition and projects the vision of a new world. This also means that the poem is constantly producing new symbols for this activity, new metaphors. Crane said in one letter, “The bridge in becoming a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp, as it finally does, seems really to have a career.” And so it does.

This is, again, the Black Sun edition, which I recommend that you go to the Beinecke and look at. It’s one of the most beautiful books I know. It’s a great big book with these big margins and red headings. Let’s look at the proem as both an introduction to the poem and as a kind of summary, in miniature, of its intentions, claims, procedures:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty – Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
– Till elevators drop us from our day…

The poem begins with another resurrection of some kind; in this case, not a seal rising from the water to gaze toward paradise, but rather a seagull rising as many times before, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest.” And this seagull becomes a kind of image of ascent and flight. I guess it is an initial image of transport. The bird sheds “white rings of tumult” and there’s that word from “Voyages III,” remember? “And where death, if shed, / presumes no carnage, but this single change…” Here, again, there’s an action of shedding as the bird throws off the darkness of the night and rises, “building high,” then disappears. The vision vanishes. We are in the world of work, we are in the office spaces of Lower Manhattan,” – Till elevators drop us from our day…” And if we’ve just gone up now, we go down again:

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen….

The movie theater: the movie theater is a new machine of transport in the twenties, a kind of mass entertainment that Crane’s poem will, in a sense, try to rival and provide a complementary way of imagining a collective vision. And what he offers next is the bridge, which he addresses in this archaic language – archaic and intimate language – as if Brooklyn Bridge could have a subjectivity:

And Thee [he says], across the harbor, silver-paced [as if the light on the
bridge were being seen as a kind of movement that the bridge was itself
involved in]
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride, –
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

This is a wild kind of address to architecture, as if the bridge were animate with the power of motion and as if it had a kind of motion that was fountain-like and could not be exhausted. Then suddenly, we’re given another vision. The threat of suicide suddenly rises up in the poem:

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

The possibility of failure seems dialectically to be written into this poem’s grand ambition, its wish for ascent and redemption. Crane turns them to images of the bridge in the New York skyline:

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

As if it were a kind of ship. I don’t know about you, but I am thrilled every time I read Crane’s language for evoking the kind of sensual power of New York architecture.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!) [the bridge is harp and
altar – instrument of music and site of worship]
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry, – Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path – condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms. Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year… O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod [suddenly the bridge crosses
the Atlantic, it crosses the American continent],
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend [and now it’s a kind of divinity
that he beseeches to descend]
And of the curveship [the bridge itself seen as a kind of vehicle of a
curveship] lend a myth to God.

The poem means to incorporate the threat of failure and the threat of death and move beyond it, much as it aims to incorporate The Waste Land’s despair and move beyond it. It is a kind of jest, a kind of prayer, a kind of pledge that belongs to lover or pariah; these are speech acts that are models for the kind of poem that you’re reading. The intention is to somehow create from a series of fragments a whole that would be an “unfractioned idiom,” as Crane calls it, which would be a kind of pure and redeemed language. There’s that phrase in the last stanza, “of the curveship,” meaning both derived from the bridge, I think, and partaking of it. He asks the bridge to lend a myth to God. “To lend” is to give knowing it will be given back. This is not a permanent name for God, it is not the one symbol for God. It is only one in an ongoing series of acts of naming, which are all acts of metaphor, which are all acts by which something from the past is joined to the future – something far is joined with something near – out of some kind of spiritual need or vision.

Well, the poem was begun – Crane liked this idea – with both ends at once just the way you build a bridge: by writing the proem and by writing “Atlantis,” and gradually over time moving towards the middle. This is the final section, “Atlantis.” In fact, why don’t we turn there for a moment. This is a splendid, outrageous, Shelleyan lyric speech:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings [and you can image now in
your minds that great Stella painting over in the gallery], –
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel –
Transparent meshes – fleckless the gleaming staves –
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings….

Here at the end of the poem, Crane imagines a kind of ascent through the structure of the bridge which becomes a grand musical instrument, a harp. The visionary appears here in fragmentary ways, as in line 25, where: “Sheerly the eyes, like seagulls stung with rime – / slit and propelled by glistening fins of light…” Crane talks here about the eyes moving up through this structure like the seagull that we saw in the first line of the poem. The object of desire, the version of paradise Crane offers us is there in line 42 or so where he talks about the bridge as “Vision-of-the-Voyage”:

Bridge, lifting night to cycloramic [it should be] crest
Of deepest day – O Choir, translating time
Into what multitudinous Verb the suns
And synergy of waters ever fuse [as if somehow the sun and water on
the space of the bridge beneath it created what Crane calls a
“multitudinous Verb”], recast
In myriad syllables, – Psalm of Cathay! [That’s of course Columbus’s
goal, Cathay.]
O Love, thy white, pervasive Paradigm…! [It’s also a vision of love.]

Here Crane gives us a kind of vision of the word, the “multitudinous Verb,” as what his poem draws its energy from and what it moves towards. It is not a Christian Word, importantly. It is, I think, a name for a creative process that’s accessed in and through our powers of language. “The word” in Crane’s poem is secular and historical but yet it unfolds from what he calls an “Everpresence,” beyond time, towards which the poem is questing. It is a creativity, a kind of power of world-making that’s embodied in our language.

Crane is imagining a post-Christian religion for which America provides iconography and myths. The poem is an encyclopedia of American places and American culture – popular culture and burlesque in “National Winter Garden,” in “The River,” in “Virginia.” There’s slang, jazz, advertising, all of that, worked into the poem. The poem combines a kind of popular storybook history of figures like Rip Van Winkle and the most challenging, abstract modernist poetics at the same time. Every line is loaded with symbols and referents linking up to other lines in the same way. In the same way, Crane is suggesting that every moment in American history links up with others and with a larger structure of action, of which it is part. Crane’s poem is therefore, I think, at once knowingly naïve and hyper-sophisticated, both of these things at once.

Crane composed the poem through the funding, with the funding of Otto Kahn, a businessman and philanthropist, and he explains his outline of the poem at still a relatively early period of composition in that letter to Otto Kahn that I included for you last time. Well, I’ll refer to it briefly. Keeping in mind that table of contents I showed you before, there’s a kind of story of American history told in large in the poem in which Crane moves from Columbus to the section called “Powhatan’s Daughter,” where the theme is the betrayal of the land in the conquest of the continent. In the middle, in “Cape Hatteras,” when Crane is writing about invention and technology in American culture, his theme is also the Civil War and World War One; again, a kind of betrayal of vision by which technology becomes a means to kill.

In his letter to Kahn, he talks about having a section on John Brown that would take up the topic of slavery. This section was never written but there are traces of it you find in the section called “The River.” In each of these sections, Crane turns to and looks to, again, hobos, marginal figures who are emblems of lost promise, who seem to represent possibilities included in but also marginalized by American history, American culture. You can understand these figures, such as the sailor that you meet in “Cutty Sark,” as versions of the authors to whom Crane appeals throughout, through allusion and epigraph: Melville, Dickinson, Poe in “The Tunnel.” Crane reaches back to these authors, canonical for us, authors that you study but that were largely left out of accounts of American literary history in the 1920s, who themselves appeared to be marginals. These are versions of a kind of community that Crane wants to recover and carry forward for the creative promise that they seem to embody.

Well, let me just point to the poem’s, let’s say, two different endings. The history of the composition of the poem is different from the sequence that you read. Because Crane began at both ends, the end of the poem is really, in one sense, the middle. When Crane completes “Cape Hatteras,” at last, after struggling with this section for a couple of years, he completes the span of the bridge in one particular image, and that’s towards the end of the section on [page] 636. And he evokes and quotes Whitman; Whitman, again, here seen as a kind of marginal who is recovered for American culture through the poem’s imaginative act. Whitman is addressed:

Recorders ages hence [that’s a quote from Whitman’s “Calamus”
poems], yes, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread [Whitman]
And read thee by the aureole [the halo] ‘round thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus! [Bread of angels. Here Whitman
becomes a kind of figure for a secular communion.]
yes, Walt,
Afoot again, and onward without halt –
Not soon, nor suddenly, – no, never to let go
My hand
in yours,
Walt Whitman –
so –

That’s a moment when in this hand clasp a certain aspiration of the poem is completed and a connection to the past is achieved and asserted. The conclusion of the poem that we find at the end of “Atlantis” is another vision, and I’ll conclude with that. It’s, I think, something to be contrasted with this triumphant and reassuring conclusion that “Cape Hatteras” offers. Here are the last two sublime stanzas of the poem.

Migrations that must needs void memory,
Inventions that cobblestone the heart, –
Unspeakable Thou Bridge to Thee, O Love.
Thy pardon for this history, whitest Flower,
O Answerer of all, – Anemone, –
Now while thy petals spend the suns about us, hold –
(O Thou whose radiance doth inherit me)
Atlantis, – hold thy floating singer late!

Here, Atlantis is brought into being with the singer himself on the verge of drowning, “thy floating singer.” And then finally Crane dedicates himself to this vision which he calls “Everpresence”:

So to thine Everpresence, beyond time,
Like spears ensanguined of one tolling star
That bleeds infinity – the orphic strings [now the cables of the bridge
have become the strings of Orpheus’s lyre],
Sidereal phalanxes, leap and converge [and again you can see the
structure of the bridge imaged there]:
– One Song, one Bridge of Fire! Is it Cathay,
Now pity steeps the grass and rainbows ring
The serpent with the eagles in the leaves…?
Whispers antiphonal in azure swing.

The poem ends with this question, “Is it Cathay?” Columbus’s question: an error, a mistake. It is the nature of the object of desire to be misnamed, precisely because it has no one name. And even in this error, this kind of defeat, there is for Crane an affirming of the scope of desire, precisely through its failure to be contained by a single reference.

Well, we’ll stop now. And I know you have done your work and gathered a note. We’ll collect these and put together our own annotated version of the poem.

[end of transcript]

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