Oct 25, 2006

Hart Crane and Connotation

Hilton Als, in his New Yorker review of the new edition of Hart Crane’s poems for the Library of America, quotes a famed passages in the history of English literary theory. The general ideas expressed in the quote that follows, ideas not original with Hart Crane, certainly, but which found a passionate champion in him, have now covered the literary culture as the waters cover the sea:

[A reply to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe] has become a key document of poetic modernism. Crane admitted that he was “more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness... than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations.” What Monroe saw as nonsense Crane insisted was a higher kind of sense. He wrote, “The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority.”
Do you not hear a lot of Mallarme in those words from Crane, as well as Winters’s incisive and valuable discussion of Mallarme in Primitivism and Decadence? (I should note in passing that Mallarme’s poetry has enjoyed a resurgence of interest of late as well. Search on google on Mallarme and you will find plenty of new commentary on his work. One article that was particularly insightful, from a couple years ago, was John Simon’s review in The New Criterion of a new edition of Mallarme’s poems. I think that’s still available on line.)

As a Wintersian, how might one reply to Crane? Here is how I would: A poet has the “right” to do anything he damn well pleases. A poet can write gibberish in dog doo for all poetry has to do with any concept of “rights.” A poet, too, can take as many liberties as he likes, throw away all conventions, abandon all principles; he has the “authority” to write in any way he might please. But though the poet can write as he pleases, the reader or the critic, especially the Wintersian, is not bound to approve or sanction, canonize or even publish, anything a poet writes with an intense emphasis on connotation.

As I have already written in this blog, I fail to understand what the hubbub about Hart Crane’s poetry is about. In fact, I fail to find this fascination in literary culture with loosey-goosey connotation to be mostly tiresome. Crane has a way of writing with great verve and breathless excitement and –- what shall I call it? -- mythic exuberance. But what he has to say, in my judgment, amounts to a thimble-full of understanding in a two-inch-deep puddle of emotions. For the furious emotions Crane expresses and evokes in his poetry, through his overemphasis on connotation, for me always immediately lose almost all their force when I lift my eyes from the page. The reason is that they are almost entirely unmoored to any motivating concepts, any experiences outside the fizzing of his own brain cells. He often writes like a madman, feeling emotions that are wildly out of proportion to anything that’s really going on around him -- in a way that seems similar to some forms of mentally illness. Reading Crane is much like trying to find one’s way in a forest by the intermittent light of fireworks going off in the sky above (to reuse a wonderful analogy of Dick Davis’s from a 2003 Wintersian essay in The New Criterion).

The Crane quote brought to mind Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, a book which seems to have influenced Yvor Winters quite deeply, especially early in his career. In reading Crane’s declaration again, I thought of a small passage from the chapter “Romantic Irony” that has always stuck with me:
The romanticist is constantly yielding to the “spell” of this or the “lure” of that, of the “call” of some other thing. But when the wonder and strangeness that he is chasing are overtaken, they at once cease to be wondrous and strange, while the gleam is already dancing over some other object on the distant horizon. For nothing is in itself romantic, it is only imagining that makes it so. Romanticism is the pursuit of the element of illusion in things for its own sake; it is in short the cherishing of glamour. The word glamour introduced into literary usage from popular Scotch usage by Walter Scott itself illustrates this tendency. Traced etymologically, it turns out to be the same word as grammar. In an illiterate age, to know how to write at all; was a weird and magical accomplishment, but in an educated age, nothing is so directly unromantic, so lacking glamour, as grammar.
For Crane, as for so many writers in modern times, the disciplines of Reason lost their gleam, their romantic allure.

But as always, I would be happy to hear from others on Crane’s work in light of Winters’s discussions of it.

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