Photographers Unknown, A Perfect Cry Shall String Some Constant Harmony
As silent as a mirror is believed
Realities plunge in silence by . . .
I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. And tremors
In the white falling flakes
Kisses are – –
The only worth all granting.
It is to be learned–
This cleaving and this burning,
But only by the one who
Spends out himself again.
Twice and twice
(Again the smoking souvenir,
Bleeding eidolon!) and yet again.
Until the bright logic is won
Unwhispering as a mirror
Then, drop by caustic drop, a perfect cry
Shall string some constant harmony,–
Relentless caper for all those who step
The legend of their youth into the noon.
Hart Crane, Legend
Born in Garrettsville, Ohio in July of 1899, Harold Hart Crane was an American modernist poet considered one of the most influential poets of his generation. He was admired by many artists including playwright Eugene O’Neill, essayist Alan Tate, poet and playwright E.E. Cummings, and writer William Carlos Williams. Important American poets such as John Berryman and Robert Lowell cited Crane as a significant influence.
The son of successful business man Clarence Crane and Grace Edna Hart, Hart Crane had a stressful childhood in which his parents constantly fought. Raised in part by his grandmother in Cleveland, he read continuously in his grandmother’s extensive library which contained the complete editions of such poets as Robert Browning, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As he aged, Crane broadened his interest with writers such as philosopher Plato, novelist Honore de Balzac, and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. His formal education was undermined by long absences from school caused by constant arguments between his parents.
In 1916, Crane left Cleveland without graduating and relocated to New York with the hope of passing the entrance exam to Columbia University. Once settled in New York City, he made the decision to abandon college and concentrate on a literary career. Crane met other writers in the city and became exposed to the various art movements prevalent at that time. As a result of his parents’ divorce in 1917, Crane’s mother and grandmother relocated to New York City and moved into his one-bedroom apartment.
To escape the pressures of family life, Hart Crane attempted to enlist in the army but was rejected due to his young age. He relocated to Cleveland and worked in a munitions factory during World War I. After the war, Crane worked briefly as a reporter for the local “Cleveland Plain Dealer”, worked in New York City for the “Little Review”, and then returned to Cleveland as an employee in his father’s candy company. Tensions between him and his now Cleveland-based family finally erupted in the spring of 1921. This led to Crane resettling back in New York City and two-years of non-communication with his father.
Throughout the early 1920s, Crane published poems in small but respected literary magazines, including “Little Review” and “Seven Arts”, which gained him respect among the avant-garde. By 1922 he had already written many of the poems that would be included in his first collection, “White Buildings”, finished in 1924 and published in 1926. This collection was written when he was falling in love with the Danish merchant mariner Emil Opffer. Their relationship, one of intense sexual passion and occasional turmoil, inspired “Voyages”, a sequence of erotic poems in praise of love. Other poems in the collection include “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”, set in contemporary times with Faustus representing a poet seeking ideal beauty, and the notable “Chaplinesque”. Produced after watching Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film “The Kid”, the poem portrayed Crane’s personal outlooks towards adversity and innocence.
By 1924, Hart Crane had already started the first drafts of his ambitious “The Bridge”, a long poem of fifteen sections with a finished length of sixty pages. Using the Brooklyn Bridge as the poem’s symbol, the poem celebrates the American experience from explorer Christopher Columbus to the 1910 opening of the newly constructed East River Tunnel. The Brooklyn Bridge functioned as a source of inspiration and a symbol of the unique American optimism.
The optimism seen in Crane’s “White Buildings” was not quite indicative of his emotional state at that time. In the spring of 1923, he was working at an advertising agency, a job he found tedious and unrewarding. The tumult and loud noises of city life spoiled Crane’s concentration and made his writing difficult. By 1926, his intense relationship with Opffer had faded; this was followed by more conflicts with his mother and the deaths of both his father and grandmother.
Hart Crane began to seek solace in alcohol and sexual encounters. With his inheritance, he fled his mother and traveled to Europe. Crane associated with many prominent figures in Paris’s expatriate community, including Harry Crosby, the owner of the fine art Black Sun Press, who offered Crane the use of his country estate. There Cane wrote a key part of “The Bridge” but continued his alcohol use and engaged in multiple sexual encounters with Marseilles sailors.
Through money lent by Crosby, Crane was able to return to the United States where he finally finished “The Bridge”, which received upon its publication poor reviews from the critics. His pattern of self-destructive behavior, with its alternating depression and elation, continued. Crane entered a creative slump from which he could not recover. He applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship with the intention to study European culture and American poetry. Granted the fellowship, Crane decided instead to travel in 1931 to Mexico where he had a heterosexual romance with Peggy Baird, the divorced wife of writer Malcolm Cowley. The poem “The Broken Tower”, one of his last published works, emerged from the affair.
Despite the relationship with Peggy Baird, Hart Crane returned to his homosexual activities. Still feeling himself a failure, he returned to New York aboard the steamship Orizaba. During the voyage, Crane was beaten up after making sexual advances to a male crew member. Drinking heavy and leaving no suicide note, he jumped overboard into the Gulf of Mexico just before noon on the 27th of April in 1932. Crane’s body was never recovered. His father’s tombstone carries the inscription: ‘Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 Lost at Sea’.
Hart Crane’s correspondence, manuscripts, documents, drawings and paintings are housed in the archival collections of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University. In the collection are most of the original manuscripts of his major works with corrections and additions in Crane’s hand. Included in this collection are “The Bridge”, “White Buildings” and “West Indies Poems”.
Note: An online collection of Hart Crane’s work can be found in the Digital Collections of the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. The site is located at: https://hrc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15878coll32