Memory and Forgetting in Hart Crane
Hart Crane (1899-1932) has long suffered from the reputation of being a difficult poet. Even his admirers, like Tennessee Williams, claimed inability to understand much of what he wrote. It is an odd complaint to lay at the feet of a modernist. Scholars delight in gathering up the cinders of unrelated and often undigested literary references in Eliot and Pound, and in fact assigning sense to the assemblage is considered their highest contribution to criticism.
Crane did not flaunt scholastic references. Instead he tried to plumb a layer of understanding, something like the subconscious, by using what he called the “logic of metaphor.” (It did not help his reputation that his explanation was much more obscure than his poetry. He unhelpfully called his approach the “dynamics of inferential mention.”) Because metaphor (like the subconscious) is not capable of linear exposition by critics (as in “Eliot saw the plight of modern man as …”), it requires more reflection than academics. And since it is a personal language the reader can never know if he fully grasped what was intended. But didn’t Chekhov say that another’s soul was like a cave?
Much of the critical dismissal of Crane centers on his large ambitious effort The Bridge, especially as it supposedly fails to compare favorably to its acknowledged model The Waste Land (It is perhaps an overstatement to say “dismissal.” It is more the iterated regret that Crane lacked “something” compared to Eliot, without considering how it contains features largely absent from all of Eliot’s work, namely lyrical expression of emotion). The comparison, as a critical campaign, was always somewhat silly, but it is beside the point here, where we look at two poems, one from a collection earlier than The Bridge and another never collected in Crane’s lifetime, written even earlier than the first.
It seems to me that one need not be a “post-modern” to accept that a proper realm for poems is the interior, for lack of a better word, Chekhov’s “soul.” A first person view is no less worth exploring than an “objective” view of the state of world culture or ruminations on religion. The subjective is perhaps the only valid perspective, and if it’s excluded, everything from Wordsworth to Swinburne has to be chucked. (The modernists at first wanted most of them excluded from the canon, but had difficulty excluding some. Of course, the big problem for English modernists was what to do with Shakespeare, whose sonnets are nothing if not personal, subjective and “Romantic”).
It should have been some comfort to the other modernists that Crane’s interior views revealed no sentimentalism. In fact, as we’ll see in the poems below, the past is not romanticized; if anything it is a source of pain in the way that nostalgia is not. In the first one memory is a delicate task, permitted only in the interstices between rain drops. It requires effort, a “reach” (with long fingers) and threatens to disturb the subject of the memory, because the one remembering must take it through his own past, his own understanding.
R.P. Blackmur, the (somewhat pretentious) New Critic and Princeton writing instructor, once summarized critical opinion about Crane this way (“New Thresholds, New Anatomies: Notes on a Text of Hart Crane” in Language as Gesture (New York, Harcourt, Brace: c1952)): “Almost everyone who has written on Crane has found in him a central defect, either of imagination or execution, or both.” He goes on to point out (among other things) syntax and diction errors in the poems. None of that exists in the following poem, however, as you will see. Nor is there the “confusion of tool and purpose” Blackmur finds. To say that Crane’s depiction of memory is imprecise in language is much like saying the vision of an impressionist is imperfect when compared to a photograph.
In any event, in this short lyrical poem enough of the undertow of the soul is apparent that it’s immediately comprehensible, even on a level beyond what language can convey.
My Grandmother’s Love Letters
from White Buildings: Poems ([New York]: Boni & Liveright: 1926)
by Hart Crane
There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
The inverse of memory, forgetting, is also treated by Crane in an early poem. This one is also free from syntactical and diction difficulties. But it more clearly shows the “logic of metaphor.” Forgetfulness is compared to a variety of dissimilar things, each of which adds to its qualities. Each one of those qualities, at first, is warm, enticing, comforting. Because memory is disturbing and unsettling and unwelcome (not just to the object as we saw in the last poem), forgetfulness must be comforting and warm. And each of the images so attests until we get to “white.” White is neither warm nor particularly comforting. And when we considered Melville’s great disquisition on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” we have to consider that forgetfulness is formal and stark and powerful and potentially evil.
Crane no doubt understood. Melville is not simply a foundation of American literary thought, he was of particular importance to Crane. Crane admired Melville and composed a poem to Melville’s tomb (published in the October 1926 issue of Poetry). But he also engaged in a series of revealing letters on his aesthetics with Poetry’s founder Harriet Monroe on this very subject. I think there is little doubt that Crane understood the terror of “white” as a metaphor.
Crane unfurls the terror of forgetfulness in much the way Melville unpacks the hidden significance of whiteness. For Crane, forgetfulness begins like a melody, then a soaring bird, then rain, a cottage, a child and finally whiteness. Melville, for his part, at first acknowledges the whiteness of angels’ garb before he gradually, ineluctably, shows that whiteness is the outer appearance of the great shark, and worse, the great whale. Crane’s series of metaphors is more compact (as would be expected in a poem, a short one at that, compared to a novel, a lengthy one indeed). But when the metaphor of whiteness is reached, the poem pivots and all the terrible force of forgetfulness is revealed, until it’s shown to have the power to bury gods.
The poem finishes with an appropriate apothegm that ties the power of memory to the power of forgetting. But the metaphors do that as well. The rain that is the forgetting in this poem is the girdle that restricts memory in the poem above. The bird which floats effortlessly, with fixed outstretched wings, is the opposite of memory, which is dangled by a single white hair.
from The Pagan (New York, New York), vol. 3 (August/September 1918)
by Hart Crane
Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless,—
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.
Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest,—or a child.
Forgetfulness is white,—white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.
I can remember much forgetfulness.
The poetry of Crane is intimate and personal. But that does not make it either post-modern or incomprehensible. Artists reveal truths by means other than strict syntax or diction. If this were not true, there would only be prose.