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Rimbaud in Embryo

The lost poet Samuel Greenberg and the critical debate over his influence.
Self-portrait by Samuel Greenberg, courtesy of the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

Some writers leave only traces, contrails across the literary firmament. They expire with few or no publications to their names, their legacies left as much to chance as to the efforts of the occasional passionate admirer. Contemporaries offer testimonies of superlative talent unfulfilled, of death robbing posterity of a name that, given time and circumstance, surely would have been added to the rolls of the great. And while some work might survive, appearing in the occasional anthology, it is shrouded in the pall of its author’s biography.

Samuel Greenberg belongs in the pantheon of literary manqués. He’s not totally forgotten—a few hundred poems survive; some were published in posthumous editions. In the 95 years since his death at the age of 23, he has endured as the prototypical “cult writer,” his works passed around like samizdat and occasionally earning an ardent, powerful admirer.

One of those admirers was Hart Crane, who, depending on your interpretation, drew significant influence from Greenberg or baldly plagiarized him. Crane’s poem “Emblems of Conduct” contains lines, either verbatim or with slight modifications, from six different Greenberg poems, including one called “Conduct.” Other work by Crane shows marks of Greenberg, whom Crane never met. The debate over just how much Crane took from Greenberg has animated Greenberg scholarship for decades, and has produced some worthwhile commentary on the nature of authorial influence. But at times it also obscures what is, on its own, a fascinating (albeit brief) life and oeuvre, deserving of its own consideration.

Born in Vienna in 1893, Samuel Greenberg was the sixth of eight children. At the turn of the century, his family immigrated to the United States, settling in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side. In those early years he attended public and religious schools, learning to read Hebrew, and had a bar mitzvah, but in 1908, the same year his mother died, he left school in order to work.

The Greenbergs were a family of artisans. Samuel’s father worked with brocade, making decorative materials for synagogues’ Torah arks, and his brother Adolf made leather bags. After dropping out of school, Samuel worked with both of them.

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But sometime in 1912, around the same time he began writing poems in notebooks, Greenberg contracted tuberculosis and underwent what would be the first of many hospitalizations. Later that year, he also began taking piano lessons, though he reportedly had difficulty reading music and remaining focused. All the same, looking over one of Greenberg’s sketchbooks in the Fales Collection at NYU, which contains the bulk of his papers, I stumbled upon drawings of staff lines pebbled with musical notes, the name of each note written underneath; they were clearly some attempt at memorization. On the same page were a pair of delicately shaded hands—perhaps simply an exercise in anatomical drawing, though placed as they were, with the fingers curved slightly inward, they recalled a conductor leading an ensemble.

Greenberg read deeply of the British Romantics, as well as Blake, Milton, and Wilde, but he had a particular regard for music, attending concerts when he could and writing poems about Richard Strauss and Mendelssohn. After a concert at Carnegie Hall, Greenberg gave a copy of his poem “The Pianoforte Artist” to pianist Josef Hofmann. (In an autobiographical essay addressed to his brother Daniel, Greenberg wrote of these concerts, “I know we liked it better than life!”) Another poem, riffing about Brahms’s Paganini Variations, sends the reader through a gyre of rhapsody: “In each phrase / Beats, the patriotism of lyre love, improvised impulse spreads / Its familiar Master glow, Communication with the spirit muse.”

By April 1915, Greenberg was writing to William Murrell Fisher, a scholar and art critic whom Greenberg had met two years earlier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in hopes of getting his work published. Time was running out for the young poet—“Sickness closed in with its careful teeth,” he wrote in that autobiographical essay. His tuberculosis had worsened (“the old story of weakness returned”); he had spent the previous two years in and out of hospitals, treatment facilities, and family members’ homes in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. That summer, a doctor would remove a kidney. Through it all he wrote, not only hundreds of poems but also some short plays. When health allowed, he worked for his brother Adolf, the leather craftsman.

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Greenberg was also a prolific painter and sketch artist. Many of his sketches are of young men, done on scraps of paper or in small, dilapidated sketchbooks, and he reportedly liked to sit in Washington Square Park, where he drew strangers. The men tended to be in profile, finely dressed; occasionally they appeared as the barest silhouette, as if evaporating from the page. He also drew self-portraits—one shows him lounging in an ornately carved wooden chair, staring out almost playfully—and illustrations of his family members and fellow hospital patients. (One sketch is dedicated “to my friend William Fisher” and dated February 1915.)

The sketchbooks doubled as all-purpose notebooks. Besides the musical notations, there are scraps of verse and one apparently undelivered note, which reads, “Young man — 19. — wishes position in any office,” and is signed below.

Some of Greenberg’s handwriting is cramped and nearly indecipherable. In the Fales Collection, a line stuck out for me. It appeared below a simple, blocky sketch of a man’s dour face, cigarette prominently perched between his lips. The poet had written, “It is the gazing at the people one gets that way.”

With his own fragile health and both of his parents having died young, Greenberg was deeply conscious of his own mortality. In his drafts, he dated and initialed each poem, perhaps with an eye toward posterity. In the work itself, he treated death with respect but also not without a kind of sly playfulness. In the poem “To Dear Daniel”—Daniel was one of Samuel’s brothers—Greenberg wrote, “There is a loud noise of Death / Where I lay; / There is a loud noise of life / Far away.” The speaker knows that he is closer to his end than to his beginning. Some poems respond to death with disbelief that it could come so prematurely. One piece opens with the following lines: “Nurse brings me Medicine! Medicine? / For me! God, 20 years old! / Medicine!? I’ll leave it to thee! / The truth is a draught!”

Greenberg’s poetry employed bizarre spelling and syntax (many editions of his work have smoothed over these errors, at the cost of authenticity). He also tended to create what Philip Horton, an early Hart Crane biographer, called “archaic contractions”—'pon, e'en, e'er. Some words are unexpectedly capitalized. This is easily chalked up to his autodidact nature, but it may also owe something to Greenberg’s taste for Milton and Blake and the short plays he wrote, which were a mélange of Spenserian fantasy and Elizabethan drama. Like some of his poems, these plays took place in what New Directions founder James Laughlin, who published the first book of Greenberg’s poems in 1939, described as a “literary mythland.” One short drama, which I read in the Fales Collection, is titled “Capablanka” and dated October 1916. It concerns an anthropomorphic statue (the list of dramatis personae calls it “a motional statue”), three woodsmen, a talking “fairy snake,” and “an unknown magician” named Valotif, as well as several others.

Told in three short acts—the whole thing is only about 16 pages in typescript—the play’s basic action is mostly intelligible, but its prose tends toward the opaque, at times appearing like a deliberately obscure pastiche of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It features Greenberg’s characteristic spelling—“obsured,” “devine,” “familiars” used as a verb—and some evocative lines that show the beauty of what Laughlin called his “unconscious dictation.” “I varnish his throat,” one of the woodsmen offers by way of a threat; another, not believing that a monument can move, claims that there are “no such furies in granite”; the third speaks of “the cliffs sea / that moan their messages of wander foam / and dash over high sprays of lust.”

Perhaps fearful of giving him more than his due, critics have tended to praise and condemn Greenberg in a single line. They often dwell on his wildness, his untended lyricism, considering it both a virtue and a deficit, deeply intertwined.

John Berryman once remarked that Greenberg had “some power of phrasing” but “with rare exceptions so little control over syntax.” Thomas Lux, in his poem “Here’s to Samuel Greenberg,” describes Greenberg as “semi-illiterate / coughing it out among total / illiterates during the only time / in your life you had time / to write: on your back.” And yet, later in the same poem, Lux refers to him as “small master.”

Laughlin vacillated between even greater extremes, writing in the 1939 introduction: “The poetry of Greenberg is not great poetry, and it is not even important minor poetry ... and yet ... poetry it is, pure poetry, to an extent equalled by the work of few other writers.”

Philip Horton, writing in the Southern Review in 1936, also knocked Greenberg down before building him back up. “One has the successive impressions that the author was mad, illiterate, esoteric, or simply drunk,” Horton wrote. “And yet there flash out from this linguistic chaos, lines of pure poetry, powerful, illuminating, and original, lines unlike any others in English literature, except Blake’s perhaps.” Repeatedly, we observe a strange kind of diffidence: Greenberg is both semi-illiterate and a master, a powerful lyricist but out of control, not even a minor poet but also a creator of “pure poetry” (a phrase that both Laughlin and Horton used).

Could he be all of this—not either/or but both/and? Or did these critics, particularly the early ones such as Horton and Laughlin, not fully understand what they were looking at? The former called Greenberg “a visionary” before going on to ask, “But who was he, or is he? Did Hart Crane, who had his poems, know?”

Indeed, it is in Crane that we find someone whose critiques of Greenberg serve only to amplify his appreciation of him, cementing the picture of Greenberg as an untutored, untamed, and splendid lyricist—the poet equivalent of a naïve artist. Crane, in a letter to Gorham Munson praised Greenberg’s “hobbling yet really gorgeous attempts.” In the tragic poet’s work, Crane saw “a quality that is unspeakably eerie and the most convincing gusto.”

Crane first encountered Greenberg’s work in the winter of 1923–24. Greenberg had already been dead for six years, and Crane was staying in Woodstock, New York, where he spent time with William Murrell Fisher, likely the only person to know both men. Fisher showed Crane some of Greenberg’s poems, and Crane was immediately electrified, pacing around the room, declaiming lines.

In his letter to Munson, Crane also called Greenberg “a Rimbaud in embryo”—an epithet that makes some sense, as Rimbaud, though better educated, had left school by 15 and was done with poetry by 20. It’s difficult not to think in turn of Victor Hugo’s own description of Rimbaud: he called the fiery young poet “an infant Shakespeare.” In both cases, the young poet is granted a claim toward genius, but his precocity—he is embryonic, or he is an infant—somehow holds him back.

Rimbaud was a proto-surrealist, and in some of Greenberg’s work, one finds a surrealist bent. Laughlin cited Greenberg’s “The Pale Impromptu” as surrealist, “with its use of words for their own sake.” Its coded narrative and succession of disjointed phrases—“Water waves / torque blocks / Skulls of saints / patience absent / Yellow dreams / Sensive Stirs / Silent hills”—support this assessment. But Greenberg’s best work forsakes this experimentation, instead melding passionate first-person narratives—about the sea, death, God, poetry, mythological landscapes—with imagery that shimmers because it appears all the more carefully rendered.

Yet he also showed a surprising talent for restraint. “Conduct” begins with a painter illustrating a valley before giving way to Technicolor descriptions of an exploding volcano and darkening skies. But then Greenberg dials down his music to a pianissimo, and the poem resolves with a curious, almost mournful scene:

The wanderer soon chose
His spot of rest, they bore the
Chosen hero upon their shoulders
Whom they strangly admired — as,
The Beach tide Summer of people desired

After their meeting, Fisher gave Crane a sheaf of Greenberg’s poems and Crane set about retyping them. This sort of transcription, or re-scription, has been a common practice among writers for ages, but Crane took the process further. Greenberg, like such poets as Whitman before him, drew inspiration from the Brooklyn Bridge, and after copying Greenberg’s “The ‘East River’s Charm,” Crane added the following lines:

And will I know if you are dead?
The river leads on and on instead
Of certainty...

Drawing on “Conduct” as well as five other Greenberg poems, Crane cobbled together “Emblems of Conduct” from January to March 1924. (Marc Simon’s forensic analysis of Crane’s borrowings is the essential work on this subject. Simon, a literary scholar whose NYU PhD dissertation was about the Greenberg/Crane connection, would go on to edit The Complete Poems of Hart Crane.) He changed some lines, tinkering here and there, but the resulting three stanzas are largely a collage. Laughlin compared the final product to “centones of the Middle Ages, those patch-work poems in which Christian stories were told in lines torn from their contexts in pagan authors.” Laughlin continues, largely approvingly: “Crane did more than steal from Greenberg—he recreated, making something entirely new, entirely his own, from the original materials.”

The contemporary term for this is remixing, which at the moment has much cultural cachet. While I acknowledge the worth of remix in anything from Warhol to hip-hop sampling, it’s difficult not to think that Crane took more than his fair share and that he has benefited from his (understandable) stature as the greater poet. But many critics feel compelled to defend Crane, as if criticizing him in this instance, arguing that he let his enthusiasm for Greenberg get away from him, would undercut his otherwise formidable achievements.

“I do not think we even need to mention the word plagiarism,” Laughlin writes in his introduction to the 1939 volume, though he does just that. “We must strongly censure Crane for his failure to clearly state his source,” yet “no doubt he meant to acknowledge his debt ... it simply slipped his mind.” Yes, no doubt. It’s a pale justification, for Crane could have easily included a line of dedication or acknowledgment.

Another Crane biographer, Paul L. Mariani, calls Crane’s borrowings “problematic.” “Emblems of Conduct” was “a dreamlike poem, uncharacteristic of Crane,” Mariani writes, and “Crane’s attempt to take by eminent domain the scattered remains of a dead young poet was not, finally, one of his best efforts.”

But notions of influence, even of plagiarism, are rarely clear, even when, as in this case, there is a large body of inculpatory evidence. As Marc Simon has shown, Greenberg was not wholly sui generis. In 1915, Fisher gave Greenberg a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship (an apposite title, given the relationships here), and some of Carlyle’s imagery describing Iceland’s geography made it into Greenberg’s “Conduct” and, later, Crane’s “Emblems of Conduct.” Greenberg’s borrowings were not so direct, but they give some sense of where he looked for his own raw materials.

Greenberg may never escape the shadow of Hart Crane (though he surely deserves to have his complete works, including the drawings, published in a new edition). But the obligatory irony is that without Crane’s, say, overabundant enthusiasm for poems like “Conduct,” we might never know of Greenberg’s poetry at all. In stealing from Greenberg, Crane assured the lesser poet’s immortality.

Still, there is some sadness in knowing that Greenberg’s work will never quite stand on its own. Despite his fragile health and lack of education, Greenberg was uncommonly prepossessing. “The poet seeks an Earth in himself,” he wrote in one verse. He sought a world of his own making, but it was to be an ephemeral one, as he was subsumed by forces—and poets, too—greater than himself.

  • Jacob Silverman is a freelance journalist and book critic in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other publications.


Rimbaud in Embryo

The lost poet Samuel Greenberg and the critical debate over his influence.
  • Jacob Silverman is a freelance journalist and book critic in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other publications.

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