In the case of Hart Crane, there can be no last word. His star has been up and down so often in the three-quarters of a century since his death, it seems unlikely that critic or reader will settle the matter soon. Crane was the great might-have-been of American verse—superbly talented, ambitious as a hammer blow, full of plans and postures and persuasions galore. Most poets have their admirers by the time they arrive at that final mausoleum, the poetry anthology; Crane is one of the few who has votaries and devotees (Sylvia Plath is another). Whatever his flaws, personal or poetic, they pale before what some see as his genius. If you don't see the genius, all you have left are the flaws.
I've always loved Hart Crane; but I love him in fractions, delighting in half a dozen of those rhapsodic poems long on style and short on sense but finding the rest mystifying as a Masonic ritual. In some of his best poems, I merely admire lines, and in some of those lines I merely admire phrases—and yet what phrases and lines and, more rarely, what poems he wrote! When I reviewed Crane's Complete Poems and Selected Letters for the New York Times Book Review, I was not surprised that some readers objected, since many value Crane even more than Crane valued himself; and he valued himself quite a lot.
Reviewing Crane, if you don't review him fondly, is like poking a pencil into a hornet's nest. The Times had room to publish no more than half a dozen letters, which with one exception were furious. You discover a lot about readers from their letters, and most of what you discover leaves you dumbfounded—sometimes, however, you learn a thing or two. The most substantial letter came from Paul Mariani, one of Crane's biographers. I'm so used to correcting others, I'm delighted when someone corrects me—it's humbling to be caught in a boneheaded mistake, and critics generally need to eat crow every few months to keep them sane. Mariani noted first that, when Crane walked to the railing of the steamship Orizaba, preparing for his suicidal leap, he was wearing a light topcoat, not, as I had written, a jacket. Second, the sea he leapt into was not the Caribbean, but the Atlantic. Last, the sea was not glassy, as I had proposed, but had "sizable waves."
No error is trivial, but how are such errors made? Out of sheer doltishness, in my case. I can tell a man's jacket from a topcoat at a hundred yards; but I failed to check my memory against the four biographies I consulted (Peggy Guggenheim, who was in her cabin below deck, said it was a light topcoat used as a robe, and that Crane was wearing pajamas underneath). No doubt I'd fail a final exam in marine geography, but the notion that Crane leapt into the Caribbean came not from me but from his biographer Clive Fisher. He was wrong. I had forgotten the two rules on which all sound criticism is based: 1) Take no fact or quotation on trust, and 2) Buy a map. In revising the review for book publication, I corrected both errors.
The biographers disagree, however, about the condition of the Atlantic when Crane jumped. Mariani fails in The Broken Tower to describe the roughness of the ocean (he mentions the "impenetrable waters off which the noon sun gleamed," which doesn't sound choppy or rugged); Philip Horton in Hart Crane claims the "sea was mild"; and Clive Fisher, quoting Guggenheim in Hart Crane: A Life, says the sea was "like a mirror that could be walked on." I changed my "glassy sea" to a "violent wake" (the wake, some think, dragged Crane under). On balance, however, the "glassy sea" seems likely.
In his description of Crane's death, Mariani was attracted to the captain's notion that the poet might have been eaten by a shark—"Did he feel something brush his leg, the file-sharp streaking side of concentrated muscle, before the silver flash and teeth pulled him under?" This is sheer moonshine, but a biographer's fantasies—and gruesome fantasies they are—don't mitigate the critic's error of fact. (The biographer then throws some of Crane's purple prose—or rather purple poetry— back at him: "But this time the calyx of death's bounty gave back neither scattered chapter nor livid hieroglyph." The allusion is to "At Melville's Tomb," but as prose it sounds like a canceled passage by Sir Thomas Browne.) The aggrieved reader's fondest delusion is that a critic's sidelong errors undermine a disagreement about taste; yet don't we prefer Eliot's opinions, despite his habitual misquotation, to the arguments of some bozo supported by quotes correct to the last nicety? That doesn't make the errors less embarrassing.
I had written that, after the failure of The Bridge, the "hope for a homegrown American epic...has never entirely revived." Mariani took exception to this, citing the long poems written since Crane's death by Williams, Olson, Berryman, and Lowell. I hadn't meant the idea to be contentious—the ruin of The Bridge cast a long shadow over long poems for a long while. In a way, it casts that shadow still. Will we ever have a truly American epic, a poem of American history? (I mean one that's any good.) I love passages in The Cantos and think Leaves of Grass the foundation of modern American verse, but The Cantos is hardly homegrown (the poem remembers America from London and Paris and Rapallo), and Leaves of Grass is not an epic but a collection of lyrics. Shakespeare's sonnets are not an epic, either.
The idea of the Great American Poem no longer seduces young poets the way the Great American Novel, that will-o'-the-wisp, still haunts American novelists. (The Great American Novel has already been written, and it is called Moby-Dick.) Because they have usually failed so badly, we forget how many long poems have been written in this country—who except at gunpoint would reread Delmore Schwartz's autobiographical epic, Genesis, Book One (Book One!), or the leaden historical poems of Archibald MacLeish or Selden Rodman? For Lowell, for Berryman, for many another, the long poem became a scatter of disconnected lyrics. That was Crane's legacy.
A second letter to the Times, from the poet and editor Daniel Halpern, grumbled that "in this era of conflict, when America can use all the good poetry it can find, it's dispiriting to encounter a reviewer who uses one of our most important reviewing venues to exercise an organ of bile." How poets like Crane are going to make readers feel better about a dirty and unpopular war is beyond me; but the unstated premise is even odder—criticizing poets is all right in peacetime; but, when the artillery begins to boom, critics should shut up. Halpern believes that "poetry is what people turn to during times of duress and celebration—marriage, death, 9/11—that is, our rites of passage." I'm not sure how the destruction of the World Trade Center qualifies as a rite de passage. As for such high-flown hopes for poetry, well, wouldn't it be pretty to think so?
Halpern groused that "when the Library of America takes on as part of its mandate the showcasing of essential American poets like Hart Crane, we look to our reviewers to address the importance of the poet's writing, not his lifestyle." A publisher would be gratified if reviewers assumed that every book under its imprint were beyond criticism. Halpern also reproached me for "disingenuously ignoring the memorable ending" of Crane's hapless little poem "Chaplinesque":
but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
A grail of laughter? A kitten in the wilderness? I failed to quote these lines because they're embarrassing—I don't see why they don't seem embarrassing to Halpern. Crane sent the poem to Chaplin, who kindly acknowledged it. Late one night, a couple of years later, a friend dragged Chaplin to the poet's apartment. "Having learned this," I wrote, "a hundred American poets will begin odes to Angelina Jolie." Halpern claimed that this was "delusional," a sign of the critic's "self-importance." A critic learns that no joke is so obvious someone will fail to get it, but I have it on good authority that seventy-seven American poets have now written such odes and anxiously await the results. Even so, Halpern was right that I hadn't quoted enough Crane, nor enough of the best of Crane—sometimes a critic sees everything but the obvious, and in revising the review I included lines from one of the most beautiful of Crane's poems, "Voyages III."
One reader accused me of slighting young women when I wrote that Crane made young men want to write poetry—yet I didn't want to ignore the fact that, in my experience, his audience remains largely male. (I take this as a sign that women have less taste for gassy romantic rhetoric.) Many readers tasked me for writing too much about Crane's life and too little about his art. Some assumed that I disapproved of his fondness for sailors. During the war, my own father was a sailor on the New York docks; had Crane survived and picked him up for some rough trade, I'd have been flattered. "How many sailors is too many?" asked one reader privately, apropos my remarks on Crane's love life. The answer is, it's too many when they start to beat you up.
The book under review consisted of a hundred and fifty pages of Crane's poetry and more than five hundred pages of his letters. Unlike many poets, Crane stands revealed in biography. It's difficult to ignore the life when you read the letters, because the messiness of daily living so often interfered with the art. Crane's wheedling, his inflated self-opinion (wildly in advance of any real achievement), his self-pity, his difficult relations with his mother and father, his plagiarism of Samuel Greenberg—surely these lie at an interesting angle to the art, even if, in the end, we have nothing but the art by which to judge the achievement. Letters should never be taken as gospel. I have my doubts that writing poetry was quite as painful or time-consuming as Crane made it out to be—the complaints to his parents sound like the exaggerations of a young man short of cash and the complaints to his friends like the excuses of an alcoholic. Crane always knew how to play on his reader's sympathy, at least until he got what he wanted. If the letters are unmemorable as literature, compared to those of Byron, or Coleridge, or Keats, or many another, they are riveting as the record of a striking and fame-hungry young man trying to make his way in New York.
Happy readers are all alike; every unhappy reader is unhappy in his own way. Yet I could not help but feel, knowing how infuriated I had made these lovers of Crane, that I had misunderstood the passions he still excites. There's something in this poet (in the life as much as the art) that calls forth the protective instinct in his readers, as well as an exaggerated sense of his loss, which Mariani called "unbearably tragic." Crane's death was sad, but not tragic—he was the author of his fate in a way few men are, but he was no Oedipus or Hamlet. It's not just that Crane was young, though poets who die prematurely, especially by suicide, often find readers who believe the world has done them wrong. (Though why not think that in all sorts of ways Crane and Plath did the world wrong?) If he had lived a lot longer and written a lot more, we might think much less of him.
Many readers want vision rather than poetry; and cold analysis of Crane's vague rhetoric, his naive sentiment, and his semi-religious adolescent yearning is not to their taste. A reader upset by a review often invokes higher authorities, roughly in this order: his own good taste, the taste of the mob, the taste of other critics, the taste of God—and all except the taste of God were invoked by these letter writers. Crane's prophetic zeal, his sense of his own destiny as well as that of his country (sometimes he mistook one destiny for the other), seems to give his words numinous meaning:
I feel persuaded that here are destined to be discovered certain as yet undefined spiritual quantities, perhaps a new hierarchy of faith not to be developed so completely elsewhere. And in this process I like to feel myself as a potential factor.
The poem he wanted to write was the Aeneid, to which he compared The Bridge. Some ambitions are disastrous.
The problem with taste is, yours is right and everyone else's is ridiculous. (I once knew a poet who, no matter how kind the reviews of his work, said that every specific complaint was "wrong.") Criticism is the exercise of taste under the guise of objectivity—the psychology of taste is such that few readers are perturbed when some mediocrity is praised, but mobs begin lighting torches when their favorites are ignored or damned. Yet criticism is surely most valuable when it argues against the grain—at least, the reader is likely to learn more from it, even if he disagrees down to his horny soles. We are forever grateful to a critic able to put into words something we have only vaguely felt. Barring that, a critic makes himself necessary to the extent that when reading him we whisper, "No! No! No!"
Critics are the sum of their biases—they begin as arbitraries and end as certainties (the course of my own criticism has sometimes been the other way round). You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley—poets are Rorschach tests. If there's a negative case for Crane, it lies in all that waxy rhetoric, glossy on the outside and rotten within. Criticism, however put, can never harm Crane in the eyes of the devoted, because what such a critic despises is exactly what those readers adore.
Why make the case at all, then? Doesn't it harm that uplifting, ennobling, transcendent thing, poetry—the poetry people need and want and deserve, the poetry that in time of war raises the downtrodden spirit, the poetry that comforts the helpless in their distress and in their trial of spirit steels the weak? I once heard an undergraduate, a stack or two over in a faceless library, say plaintively, "What are you going to do about the Jesus in my heart?" What are you going to do about the poetry in my heart? If the critic were meant to offer solace, he would have taken up a different line of work. All he can do is record his feelings for the one or two readers willing to look again at Crane—the critic's job is not to pat the reader on the head and whisper sweet nothings in his ear.
However captious or confident a critic may be, even the lightest reading of the critical past shows that the mountains of one day may be molehills to another. Critic A and Critic B may disagree so strongly they threaten to cut each other's windpipes. A year may pass, or a hundred; and another critic will come along and say that a was right about such and such, and b about so and so, but that taken as a whole there was not much difference between them. When I look over the early reviews of Whitman, I agree with almost every obstreperous howl and every quiet reservation, yet mostly the critics missed the point. Such recognitions keep a critic awake at night.