July 21, 1899– Hart Crane:
“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”
Crane was a quintessentially American poet, born and raised in Ohio. His father was the inventor of Life Savers Candy and his mother was overbearing, flashy, and a hypochondriac. The parents drank, fought bitterly and eventually divorced. An unhappy childhood provided the perfect set-up for a young poet’s successful writing career.
Crane began writing verse as a young teenager, and although he was basically self-educated he read the works of the Elizabethans: William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Donne, along with the 19th century French poets: Charles Vildrac, Jules Laforgue, and Arthur Rimbaud.
Crane finally had enough of family life in Ohio and he dropped out of high school to move to NYC in 1916. He found work as a copy editor and wrote poems for small literary magazines. He often needed to borrow money from his father in order to survive.
In NYC, he partied with many important literary stars of the era: Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, e. e. cummings, but his heavy drinking and emotional instability frustrated most attempts at a lasting friendship. Crane admired the poems of T. S. Eliot, and his own work combined the influences of the modern European writers with a particularly American sensibility inspired by our greatest poet, Walt Whitman.
Like Whitman, Crane lived in Brooklyn. With his lover, Emil Opffer, he shared digs at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights. Crane was crazy for the views the house afforded him. In spring of 1924 he wrote:
“Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of The Statue Of Liberty, way down the harbor, and the marvelous beauty of The Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshaled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sailboats in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live. This section of Brooklyn is very old, but all the houses are in splendid condition and have not been invaded by foreigners.”
The Brooklyn Bridge served as the inspiration for his greatest poem, The Bridge (1930), his own answer to Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). During his time, the area below the bridge on the Brooklyn side was notorious as a place for gay guys to meet to have sex.
As his work was published, some praised his poetry, but most critics scoffed at it. Crane’s poems are often criticized as incomprehensible; he was certainly that for me when I attempted to get through his collected works in American Poetry 301 in college. Crane was emotionally crushed by the bad reviews his poems received.
Tormented by his attraction to other men, Crane had a rapturous affair with Opffer, a Danish sailor, the inspiration for his epic erotic poem Voyages (1926), the center piece of his first book of published poems, White Buildings.
Crane lived a lifetime of profound problems, both social and personal. His failed love life was partly due to his obsession with men from the navy. Ernest Hemingway (they share a birthday) noted:
“Poor Hart Crane, always trying to pick up the wrong sailor.”
Crane’s own self-image held him back from any real lasting happiness, but booze was the major reason for his downfall. Under the influence, he would become flirty; frequently finding himself in the wrong situations at the wrong times. Haven’t we all been in that situation on a lonely Saturday night?
Crane went to live in France as a guest of Harry and Caresse Crosby, an American couple who owned the fine arts Black Sun Press. From their home in the French countryside, Le Moulin du Soleil, Crosby wrote in his journal:
“Hart Crane back from Marseilles where he slept with 30 sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark. Crane got drunk at the Cafe Select and fought with waiters over his tab. When the Paris police were called, he fought with them and was beaten. They arrested and jailed him, fining him 800 francs and spent six days in prison at La Santé.”
Crane made an attempt to clean up his act and play it straight to please the people in his life. He tried, but he was miserable. Drinking and rough-trade made his life bearable and yet, made it worse.
Crane attempted to marry a girl, Peggy Crowley, the recently divorced wife if his good friend, writer and critic Malcolm Crowley, but everyone knew it was all a conceit.
On April 26, 1932, while on board a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea, Crane was badly beaten by a crew member that he had made a pass at. The following morning, a friend found him in his room, drunk and inconsolable. She told him to dress for lunch and left. Shortly before noon, Crane was seen on the deck, looking down at the water. He yelled out: “Goodbye, everybody!” and then he jumped overboard. His body was never recovered. He was just 32-years-old.
Tennessee Williams, the most devoted of all the many writers and artists who venerated Crane, left instructions that his own body was to be buried at sea in the Gulf Of Mexico at the very spot that Crane drowned. Instead, William’s family buried him in St. Louis, the city Williams so desperately tried to escape.
Crane’s life story is a troubled tale of a talented gay man trying to find where he belonged in the world. If he had been born a half a century later maybe Crane would have been able to write and publish his poems with some glimmer of happiness.
James Franco, presented as his Masters thesis for his MFA in Filmmaking from NYU, The Broken Tower (2011) a black-and-white film that he directed, wrote, produced, edited and stars as Hart Crane. It is not exactly a bio-pic, but rather a filming of the poem The Voyage. It is nearly incomprehensible, but then, Crane’s poetry confounds me and his life leaves me circumspect.
From Legend, part of White Buildings:
We make our meek adjustments
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets
For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street
Or warm torn elbow coverts
We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!
And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness