P.O.E.T.S. Day! Hart Crane

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Just when you thought it would never end, classical mechanics saves the day. We’ve spun through another week and that blessed moment when the whistle blows, it’s time to punch out, and traffic swells is almost upon us. Why wait? It’s P.O.E.T.S. Day. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. There’s no reason to stick around when even the boss has mentally gone fishing. You’re not going to get anything done. At least not done well. Get out of there. Dissemble, obfuscate, ignore the niceties that lubricate the engine of society. There are mid-major basketball games to watch. Head on down to the bar a few hours before you’re “allowed” and have a happy hour beer. No one’s going to notice. Head to the park or the zoo. Browse a book store with a sleeved cup of that overpriced coffee they sell there. I wouldn’t go fishing because the boss might decide to slip out early too and that could get awkward, but hey, it’s your time. Take it. Do with it as you will. That said, may I suggest in homage to the mighty acronym, setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the niceties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


This week’s poet is Hart Crane and his poetry can be a bit hard to grasp. That’s not just me being obtuse. Harrison Smith from the publishing house Harcourt, Brace wrote “I feel certain you are a genuine poet-and there are not many genuine poets lying around these days. . . . It really is the most perplexing kind of poetry. One reads it with a growing irritation, not at you but at himself, for the denseness of one’s own intellect.” The critic Edmund Wilson wrote he had “a style that is strikingly original—almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was … not … applied to any subject at all.”

It was though. His style was applied to a great many things as he aptly explained to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine in the 1920s, in a letter responding to her concerns about his submission, this week’s featured poem, “At Melville’s Tomb.” Previously Marianne Moore wrote to him, when rejecting an earlier poem for publication in Dial, “its multiform content accounts, I suppose, for what seems to us a lack of simplicity and cumulative force.” T.S. Eliot passed on the same poem for The Criterion. I imagine Crane jumped at the opportunity Monroe offered to explain his poetic choices, or his “rationale of metaphor,” to the editor of one of the more influential periodicals.

“It all comes to the recognition,” he wrote in response. He relied on the reader’s experience to bridge the gaps he left between images. As an example, from “At Melville’s Tomb,” the line “The portent wound in corridors of shells,” describes how the sea gives warning that it takes lives. To realize that metaphor requires a few off-stage leaps. He expects the reader to have listened to a sea shell to “hear the ocean” as we say. He also expects the reader to know that what you are actually hearing is not the sea but the sound of your blood pumping through veins near your ear drums which stand out and are reflected back when the shell covering your ear filters out other sounds (I’m taking Crane’s word that this is what happens in that instant but the important thing is that he thought it was when he wrote the line.) Next the reader must imagine that is not a reflected sound, but the sound of a drowned victim’s heart beat stolen by the sea, stored in the walls of the shell and cast onto the shore as a warning to the wary. It’s not straightforward, but once realized, it’s beautiful.

I saw an interview with Joel Hodgson when he was still on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He was asked if they ever toss out a joke because it’s too obscure. “There was one joke we decided not to do because we didn’t think anybody would get it,” he said more or less. I’m paraphrasing. “Someone in the room said ‘Somebody will get it,’ and we knew that we’d make that one person so happy so the joke was back in and that became the writing room philosophy.” I think that tracks with what Crane was thinking. He wrote the most poetic phrase he could conjure and hoped it resonated.

His personal life was a disaster. He was an alcoholic who couldn’t hold his liquor and a homosexual at a time where expressing homosexuality to the wrong people was bad for your jaw. There are at least two well known instances where Crane was beaten by sailors who didn’t appreciate his attention. I’m not certain if he had something specifically for sailors, but Emil Opffer, of whom Crane wrote the poetic love sequence “Voyages,” was a sailor. If it’s a coincidence, it’s an odd one (are there coincidences that aren’t odd?)

The first instance happened in the town of Martigues, northwest of Marseilles, while visiting the poet Roy Campbell and his wife Mary in June, 1929. Campbell explains some of what happened in a letter to the painter Enslin du Plessis:

“We had to get him to go away but we parted good friends… We found him sitting at 12 at night in the middle of the road with his typewriter on one side of him and his portmanteau on the other crying like a baby. Then he tried to jump off the bridge. I think it was dope. I managed to get him back to his own people.”

Campbell left out that between the bridge and getting him back to his own people he had to save Crane from an angry sailor he made a pass at. That came out in correspondence between Campbell and David Wright.

Or there’s the version of the same event from Campbell’s letter to the writer/painter Wyndham Lewis. In this one he hints at the sailor:

“He started banging on the table and shouting so I made him shut up. Then I threw a bucket of water on him to make him perfectly sober. I kept him till 2 am and retraced everything he had said. He then wept, and said he was coming over to Europe with a brigade of Americans to shoot every European. Then I thought it was about time to show him what he would get if he did. His chief quarrel against Europe it seems was that the sailors and fishermen were not pederasts. I chucked him out of the house when he became so truculent… The garde champetre found him sitting in the middle of the main road with his typewriter and valise, howling and howling… [He] is a disgrace… like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

As with most things involving Campbell, you don’t know whether to believe Campbell or Campbell, but letters to Wright (I’ve read. I’m unable to find the text of the Wright letters) fall in line more with the version sent to du Plessis. Poor Crane the Ohioan/New Yorker ran off to France for some peace and quiet and still made the gossip rounds of the artsy set in New York and London.

The second instance happened on the steamship Orizaba in April of 1932 while traveling on the Gulf of Mexico. Per Wikipedia, “he was beaten up after making sexual advances to a male crew member.” On that same trip he went overboard and drowned. No body was ever recovered. He was drinking heavily before he died and it is possible that his death was an accident, though there were witnesses who say he said “Goodbye, everybody!” before going over. I wonder if he thought about the “portent wound in corridors of shells,” as he drowned.

Below is the poem “At Melville’s Tomb.” In it the persona visits Herman Melville’s grave and conjures the sea where Melville entombed his fictional sailors. The remains of dead seamen invite consideration though he knows they’ll remain a mystery. Sinking ships eject hints of what happened. There are records of the dead, but they are hidden. The punishing whip is satisfied now that the sailors are gone. They look up towards the heavens for directions as they sink. There is nothing more to be done. No songs of mourning will raise the dead. They all belong to the sea now.

At Melville’s Tomb

(Hart Crane 1899 – 1932)

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

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