A Note on Hart Crane (1899-1933)
"Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, gripping a rum in one hand and a copy of 'The Wasteland' in the other. Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded."
After telling us that Crane's early poetry "showed more style than talent," that Crane's poem "Chaplinesque" is a "dreadful mess," after sniffing at Crane's "voracious sexual appetites"--is there any American critic (or poet) more afraid of the human body than William Logan?--the critic writes of Crane's great project, "The Bridge":
"Much of 'The Bridge' seems inert now--overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed. At his best, he stayed just this side of wild-eyed prophesying, though his grandeurs might easily be mistaken for grandiosity..."
I have friends--otherwise bright people, mind you--who actually like Logan's criticism; people who find Logan's work in the New Criterion and elsewhere "intelligent" and "bracing." I don't. I think his critical work is annoying, predictable and consistently mean-spirited.** I think even less of Logan as a poet. His claim that Crane's work is "inert" is almost laughable. Years ago, I paid $1.92 at a circus-tent "Book Blowout" for a remaindered copy of Sullen Weedy Lakes, Logan's third collection, a book so bloodless, so dead-on-the-page, I still think he owes me change.
Yes, Hart Crane's life was a mess. He drank too much, loved profligately and died too young. But he left us with poems like "My Grandmother's Love Letters," "Sunday Morning Apples," the "Voyages" sequence, all of "Key West: An Island Sheaf," and yes, "The Bridge." That is far more than poets like Logan have ever put on the table.
And Crane, for all the despair that led his too-early death, also offered hope (instead of cynicism) for what we might accomplish as writers. In his Introduction to Marc Simon's edition of The Poems of Hart Crane (Liverwright, 1986) John Unterecker*** speaks of a letter Crane wrote to his father, a man who made his fortune as a candy manufacturer in Cleveland, and a man who hoped that his son might one day take over the family business:
"It was a difficult letter for Crane to write, for, as he was careful to indicate, he had no contempt for his father's world and his father's values. The 'dimensional world' has very real satisfactions. At the end of his letter, Crane tried hard to explain why creating something as useless and as invaluable as art seems to him the highest possible goal he could set for himself.
'And in closing I would like to just ask you to think sometimes,--try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,--something that maybe can't be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between a man and a man, a bond of understanding and human enlightenment--which is what a real work is. If you do that, then maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end.'"
*"Hart Crane's Bridge to Nowhere," New York Times Book Review, (January 28, 2007)
**My thanks to "Avoiding the Muse" for a reference to Brian Henry's recent remarks on the critical work of William Logan. Here is a link:
***John Unterecker is Crane's biographer. See: Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)