Oct 19, 2006

New Edition of Hart Crane's Poetry

A Library of America edition of the poetry (and letters) of Hart Crane was released recently, an event which has given rise to a number of reviews and essays about Crane in major American magazines and journals. Some of these essays have mentioned Yvor Winters, in regard to perhaps the most famous role he has played in American literary history so far: his friendship with Hart Crane. The New Yorker review of the new edition of the poems, by Hilton Als, is well worth reading and mentions Winters several times, and without rancor or condemnation (thankfully!). Als offers some valuable insights into the poetry of Crane. The essay can be found at:


Here’s a few quotations from Als’s review, with some comments from me:
The interpretation of Crane’s life as a dire fable of the age has shaped his reputation ever since. Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, two of his best friends and two of the best critics of modern American poetry [Comment: there’s a wonderful endorsement of Winters coming from the finest and most important magazine in US literary culture], saw his story primarily as a warning. For Winters, he was a noble spirit destroyed by false principles, “a saint of the wrong religion”; for Tate, his poetry had “incalculable moral value,” but mainly because “it reveals our defects in their extremity.”
Comment: I have trouble seeing the incalculable moral value of Crane’s poetry, though I do see that he could turn a string of magnificent phrases at times. Indeed, I see little moral value in his work at all. To be honest, I consider his poetry of little value in any area of life, though it does have its incidental pleasures, the grandiloquent mythical effusiveness of it. But I cannot think of one Crane poem that has given me any deep insight into any significant human experience, not even the love poem Winters praised so highly as Crane’s finest work, “Voyages II.” Further, I’ve never read a commentary on Crane’s poetry, including Als’s smattering of comments on the importance of Crane’s work, that gave me any clear indication of what readers find to be so valuable in Crane. I’d be interested in the opinions of my readers on what they find significant in Crane’s poetry.
At last, however, Crane has been given a place, the most unassailable one in American letters: a volume of his own in the Library of America. Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Hammer, can be seen as a conclusion to the long debate over Crane’s stature. Still, the question of what Hart Crane “stands for” in American literature is difficult to answer. His work resists the complacency of canonization, blazing with qualities that are the opposite of classical: precocity, obscurity, and verbal recklessness.
Comment: I have read a study of Crane, in contrast to this last claim of Als’s, that argues that Crane’s work stands in the classical tradition, a modern flowering of English Renaissance verse, principally Shakespearean verse. I think, however, that the last three nouns in that passage accurately summarize the character of Crane’s poetry and are the reason I do not rate it highly and do not get much from reading it. I notice that John Fraser chose a couple Crane poems for his New Book of Verse, a matter I shall return to some time later as I continue to evaluate Fraser’s choices for that highly important anthology. Winters certainly praised a couple of Crane’s poems in the loftiest language, even to the degree of calling “Voyages II” nearly perfect. I will need to come back to that matter, I think. After years pondering the matter, I do not think Crane’s work deserves praise anywhere near so high.
Many twentieth-century poets were heavy drinkers, but Crane was almost unique in preferring to write while he was actually drunk.
Comment: This has become a commonplace of Crane biographers, to go into details about his alcoholism and his personal difficulties, particularly with his parents. I wonder how much more booze -- and his psychological defects and social troubles, particularly with the apparent homophobia he faced -- had to do with his suicide than his Whitmanian beliefs about the value of intuition or impulse, which Winters so forcefully argued was the principal cause of his suicide (the argument is found in “The Significance of the Bridge, or What Are We to Think of Professor X” from In Defense of Reason). I tend to think, after much reflection on the matter, that Crane was probably driven to suicide, in significant part, by demon rum and the incidental cruelties of homophobia, rather than his hyper-Romanticism. Does this invalidate Winters’s argument? That’s something to ponder. I think it likely that Winters’s case is not as strong as it once seemed to me.

I believe I will have more to offer on Als’s essay.


Anonymous said...

The essay in New Yorker is by Adam Kirchner, not by Hilton Als.

Ben Kilpela said...

Thanks for the correction. I need an editor and fact-checker.