June 17, 2020

Hart Crane — “The Sea Has Thrown Itself Upon Me …”

By Stuart Mitchner

Think of it as a double feature. Or better yet, one film, A Tale of Two Poets, with a week-long intermission.

Here are two driven, difficult artists who wrote difficult, celebrated verse. Each chose to “take his own life” or “end it all” on the grand scale. In last week’s column it was John Berryman leaping off a bridge over the Mississippi; this week it’s Hart Crane leaping off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico, his body never recovered, the headlines reading Poet Lost at Sea.

Fathers and Sons

Berryman’s father fatally shot himself outside his 11-year-old son’s ground-floor window at the Kipling Arms apartments, Mandalay Drive, Clearwater Beach, Florida. The shot echoed through four decades, the son reliving it in “Dream Song 145,” the last act of the father “so strong & so undone,” who “only, very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.”    

Crane’s father, a Cleveland, Ohio candy manufacturer “wholly loyal to the gods of Commerce” was “outraged by the jest of fortune which had given him a poet for a son.” Making it his mission to drive out the “poetry nonsense,” he put the boy to work selling candy and told the other employees to keep an eye on him in case he read “poetry books” during work hours.

Fortune’s Jest

Just as I find it hard to credit the claim by college student witnesses that Berryman waved as he made his last move, I’m skeptical of reports that have Crane crying “Goodbye everybody!” as he jumped off the stern of the Orizaba after reportedly making a pass at a crew member and being beaten up. Although Crane’s closest friend and confidant Waldo Frank wasn’t there, he gives the simplest, most resonant account in his introduction to the Collected Poems: “He took off his coat, quietly, and leaped.”

Having previously used the charged phrase “jest of fortune” to describe the father’s attitude toward his gay, poetry-writing son, Frank understood that Crane’s “exquisite balance of nerves was already permanently impaired” and that he lived in a “constant swing between ecstasy and exhaustion,” needing “the tangent release of excess drink and sexual indulgence” that would, along with the “burden of his mysticism,” finally “break him from his love of life and destroy him.”

Frank’s stress on the word quietly also evokes the fateful fifth stanza of Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” in which “A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning, / A jest falls from the speechless caravan.”

My use of the word “fateful” refers to the impact that image clearly had on Berryman, whose first published poem, “Elegy for Hart Crane,” closes with Crane “Monstrous and still, brooding above the bridge.”

In his poem “Lament for the Makers,” W.S. Merwin recalls the moment he heard of his former teacher’s death:

one day the knocking at the garden
door and the news that Berryman
from the bridge had leapt who twenty
years before had quoted to me
the passage where a jest wrote Crane
falls from the speechless caravan…”

Crane Unbound

I didn’t appreciate the immense physical force of Berryman until I saw him reading from his work in various online videos. With nothing comparable available for Crane, I’ve had to depend on his poetry, letters, and the words of friends interviewed in a Voices and Visions documentary from the 1960s.

There are wide-eyed recollections of drunken demonic rages, of someone who had to write with music playing and was capable of throwing the gramophone out the window, who loved to dance flamboyantly free-form, who adored Isadora Duncan, and whose more legendary performances had a slapstick zaniness. It’s possible to imagine a Mack Sennett two-reeler based on the time he became enraged with his typewriter for not being equipped to “type in Spanish,” threw it out a second-story window, hurried downstairs to retrieve it, carried it back up, and threw it out the window again.

In the Shadow of the Bridge

Another more ominous incident took place on the roof of 110 Columbia Terrace in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the world’s “most beautiful bridge,” the edge of which “leaps over the edge of the street,” where the poet of The Bridge (1930) saw a scene that was “more familiar than a hundred factual perversions could have rendered it,” with “all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window” from which he could see “the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning, or evening.” To express the magnitude of mystic-aesthetic fulfillment, he wrote, “I think the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered.”

The passage is from an April 21, 1924 letter to Waldo Frank that opens with his rhapsodic account of an event “for which happiness must be too mild a term” — he’s in love “perhaps for the first time in my life,” but “it will take many letters to let you know what I mean … when I say that I have seen the Word made Flesh … where flesh became transformed through intensity … where sex was beaten out, where a purity of joy was reached that included tears.” His boyish, lovestruck, love-song-lyrical “ecstasy” ends with the image of him and his lover (a Danish merchant seaman named Emil Opffer) “walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge of the world, the cables enclosing us and pulling us upward in such a dance as I have never walked and never can walk with another.”

The in-the-moment awkwardness of “such a dance as I have never walked” is transmuted into verse in the “Voyages” sequence from White Buildings (1926):

Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown
And widening noon within your breast for gathering
All bright insinuations that my years have caught
For islands where must lead inviolably
Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes …”

Sea and lover become one element taken to extremes, “In all the argosy of your bright hair I dreamed / Nothing so flagless as this piracy.” But before the reader has time to cringe, lines like these are in store, “Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam; / Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know: / Draw in your head and sleep the long way home.”

Suicidal Acrobatics

The “ominous incident” on the roof of 110 Columbia Terrace took place in the company of a friend who, when interviewed in his sixties, recounts how Crane suddenly, without a word, vaulted off the edge, or would have if the friend hadn’t caught him by the leg and pulled him back, an act so visually improbable, an image so bizarre, it’s best imagined in cartoon-simplistic terms or by way of the comedic acrobatics associated with Buster Keaton or, more appropriately, Charlie Chaplin, whose cinematic poetry Crane celebrates in “Chaplinesque.” Filmed in the brazen style of early Chaplin, the tramp would be held by one leg, in mid-air kicking, holding his derby with one hand, his waistcoat laddered, his cane wildly wagging.

“Chaplinesque” goes deeper, goes — how else to say it? — to the heart of Hart. Expressing his enthusiasm in letters to friends, he wrote, “I am moved to put Chaplin with the poets (of today).” He “may be a sentimentalist, after all, but he carries the theme with such power and universal portent that sentimentality is made to transcend itself into a new kind of tragedy, eccentric, homely and yet brilliant.”

“Clarity of Spirit”

In October 1923 in New York, Crane spent a night carousing and conversing with Chaplin, who had read and admired “Chaplinesque.” At the time of their meeting, Crane was relatively unknown while Chaplin was a world-renowned celebrity who would die a wealthy man at the age of 88 on Christmas Day 1977.

After his night with Chaplin, Crane wrote to his mother: “I am very happy in the intense clarity of spirit that a man like Chaplin gives one.” According to Waldo Frank, who had brought Chaplin and Crane together, the poet committed suicide when his “excesses crowded out the crystal intervening times when he could write.” No doubt his “clarity of spirit” coincided with those “crystal” times when he was writing the poems “whose very texture,” in Frank’s words, “reveals and sings this man.”

Searching in “Chaplinesque” for the quality that gives Chaplin’s films their warmth and universality, Crane uses a kitten as the “symbol” of the actor’s “social sympathies.” The second stanza begins: “For we can still love the world, who find / A famished kitten on the step, and know / Recesses for it from the fury of the street.” The poem ends with the poet hearing “through all sound of gaiety and quest … a kitten in the wilderness.”