Langdon Hammer: American Perspectives

December 17, 2008

Welcome to Poetry Lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars and educators presented by In this program, Langdon Hammer discusses how the life and poetry of Hart Crane served as inspiration for artist Jasper Johns. Langdon Hammer is professor of English at Yale University, where he chairs the English department. He reviews poetry for the New York Times and is poetry editor for the American Scholar. His publications include The Complete Poetry And Selected Letters of Hart Crane. The talk you're about to hear took place on December 13, 2007 and was part of American perspectives, a collaboration of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and The Poetry Foundation. Here's Langdon Hammer speaking on Hart Crane and Jasper Johns.


Langdon Hammer: It's really a wonderful pleasure for me to be here to spend an afternoon wandering among Jasper Johns graze and now to talk to you about Johns and an important poet important to him and to me, Hart Crane. Although as the Art Institute's I think really dazzling current exhibition makes clear, the color gray has been part of Jasper Johns' work from the 1950s to the present. Johns has in fact two distinct gray periods, the years 1961 to 1964 and 1997 to 2003. These periods are marked also by the artists interest in the modern American poet, Hart Crane. Crane and his poetry are conspicuous presences in the earlier period which includes painting periscope parenthesis Hart Crane while the later period known as the “catenary” series begins with a painting “Bridge" that returns to Crane in his long poem "The Bridge" as a point of departure. This evening I'm going to focus on the earlier period on works of that earlier period and their relation to Crane, but I'll touch on the later period as well suggesting, as I do, some basic continuities between the works of these widely separated periods and to that extent continuities across Johns' career. The works I'll discuss constitute a reading of Crane's life and work that may help us to read Johns. A central concern emerging for Johns which he shares with Crane is how the artist and viewer, writer and reader might meet and recognize each other across time in the work of art or literature. The emblem of this exchange, this potential exchange in Johns 1960s work which is derived from Crane is an extended hand, perhaps reaching for shadowing or doubling another. In Johns' later work, the emblem is string that hangs across the picture plane and the descending art that suggests a cable of one half of the suspension bridge. By the early 1960s, when he enters Johns work, Crane had become an iconic figure in American poetry, fiction, drama, memoir, painting and gossip. To introduce him today, I'll show you this photo, the first of a series of, one of a series of portraits of Crane by his friend, Walker Evans, probably taken in the fall of 1929. Crane is seen here on the roof of the apartment building at 110 Columbia Heights, where he lived off and on in the mid-1920s. The location is associated with some of his greatest poems. Here, Crane began his sequence of ecstatic love lyrics, voyages in 1924 in response to his affair with Emil Opffer who lived in the same building. He wrote some of the first fragments of "The Bridge" at the same address with a view from his window of Brooklyn Bridge, which of course you can see there in the background. The love affair and his experience of the bridge come together in a letter where he writes, "I've been able to give freedom and life, which was acknowledged and the ecstasy of 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." Crane is the poet of New York of epic ambition, of erotic idealization and intensity, the modern romantic par excellence. But a closer look reveals other aspects of the poet. Politely almost deferentially holding his hat in his hand here, as one might go begging, Crane was out of work at that time and without a settled address when Evans took this photo, reveals a head of hair prematurely whitening. The poet is just 30, and a face gouged by dark circles under the eyes. These are the visible effects of his alcoholism. The photo, I think, looks back to Crane's early promise and accomplishment and ahead also to the psychological torment and disintegration that led to his suicide three years later. At the time this photo was taken, Crane was finishing "The Bridge" which he started in 1923. He struggled to complete the poem in the knowledge that the poet critic friends, Allen Tate and and Ivor Winters, whose approval he had counted on when he started it had now come to believe that the poem's ambition was misguided, which was also Crane understood a judgment by them on his moral and sexual choices. When it appeared in 1930, "The Bridge" one respectful praise, but the reviews by Tate and Winters, which mattered the most to Crane were severe. They attacked Crane's romanticism in general and his praise for Whitman and his alliance with Whitman in particular. They both singled out for blame his direct address to Whitman in the poem central section "Cape Hatteras". Here recalling the language of that 1924 letter, this section of the poem closes with the poet offering his hand to Whitman and proposing to walk into the future with him. “Yes Walt, a foot again and onward without halt, not soon, nor suddenly, know never to let go my hand in yours Walt Whitman." Lines that, in fact, form a couplet, rhyming couplets too. Winters, with this passage in mind, called Crane's attitude toward Whitman desperately sentimental. Here's a review prominently published in Poetry Magazine, where no one would miss it, ended, "No writer of comparable ability has struggled with the Whitmanian inspiration and with Mr. Crane's wreckage and view, it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable genius will struggle with it again." Johns knew Crane story probably from several different sources. He owned a copy of Philip Orton's 1937 biography of the poet. To judge from the works that Johns produced in the early 1960s, his imagination was particularly drawn to the end of the story, that is to Crane's death by drowning. Coming from the very end of Horton's biography of the suicide, heedless of the curious glances that followed his progress along the deck, Crane walked quickly to the stern of the ship and scarcely pausing to slip his coat from his shoulders, vaulted over the rail into the boiling wake. The alarm was general and immediate. There was a clanger of bells as the ship's engine ground into reverse. Life preservers were thrown overboard. A lifeboat was lowered. Some claim they saw an arm raised above the water. Crane had been returning at the time from here in Mexico, to New York. He leaped from his ship, a hundred miles north of Havana. Rescue failed and the body was never recovered, which is I think important fact as we think about how Johns approached him. This photograph is of Crane's father's gravestone in Garrettsville, Ohio, the poet's birthplace. You could see the father's name on the top, Clarence A. Crane, 1875-1931, so he predeceased his son by less than a year. The engraving on the front of the stone reads, Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932, lost at sea, as if Crane had been a mariner who had been carried overboard in the storm. The inscription reminds us that Crane had no burial and that in fact he has no resting place to mark. The point to be noted in this which Jasper Johns work restlessly elaborates is that when he died, Crane disappeared.

The story of Johns' artistic involvement with Crane has sometimes been represented as an emotional breakthrough that affected a dramatic departure from the impersonality of the flags and targets with which he'd made his reputation in the late and mid, mid and late 1950s. Johns' first signal through the flames in 1962, one critic writes, "With four works that refer to the poetry of Hart Crane, he broke out of", I'm still quoting, "He broke out of his emotional closet and two of them lands end and diver, he appears to be crying for help. Communing with Crane, the dead homosexual poet, Johns evidently found solace and fellowship. That's all a quote from one critic. The biographical basis for this reading of this whole sequence of images is the end of Johns seven year relationship with Robert Rauschenberg in 1961, which roughly coincided with Johns move from New York to the South Carolina coast, South Carolina being his home state. Then, in the next few years, and in the case of a number of the works I'll be talking about they were produced in South Carolina and in New York, both locations. As that phrase broke out of his emotional closet implies, the idea is not only the Johns broke out emotionally, but that he, in a sense, came out as a gay artist during a moment of personal crisis through his identification with a gay poet who had been driven to despair. By the logic of this reading, the ham that's thrusting into the central composition of lands and would seem to belong to both Johns and Crane. It's true that there is a new expressive freedom and urgency in these works. As critics have noticed, the period is marked by Johns' complicated re-engagement with abstract expressionism, which is work of the 1950s, it seemed to repudiate, and there are many reasons why Johns might've identified with Crane. Both men were the only sons of divorced parents, both were utter didacts who came to New York to make their careers. Johns was 32, the age when Crane died when he made his first Crane pictures. But any biographical story that we might construct in order to explain Johns' work at this moment based on a presumed identification with Crane is going to be incomplete. Incomplete not only because we don't have enough biographical information, which I don't think we have, but also because identification of the kind that these works explore is by its nature, incomplete, tentative and partial. A reading of these images as the coming out of a homosexual painter leads the viewer away from the work which is where the work insists we can't follow. A biographical reading of this kind would locate the artist in the work, whereas Johns' ways of evoking Crane pointedly do not. Johns never allows the viewer to see the poet or for that matter Johns himself, the artist, except as a fragment, a shadow trace. Despite all the biographical reasons that the Johns had for identifying with Crane, they are really very different artists, and the might seem, in fact, to belong to entirely different artistic traditions. Johns is the cool, cerebral descendants of Marcel Duchamp, the deadpan joker. Crane is the overheated, oversexed neo-romantic, serious to a fault. These are, of course, clichés about both of them, but there's some truth in them. If the painter is sometimes criticized for thinking too much, the poet is regularly blamed for not thinking enough. Crane was was profoundly responsive to visual art and involved with photographers and artists, but he had no interest in, as he put it, the data theories and other flam doodle of Duchamp and men Ray, his contemporaries in New York. He was drawn instead to modern American art of the 1920s and teens in which representation is verging on abstraction, moving away from realism toward a heightened subjectivity in the symbolic. In the photographs that Crane's friend, Alfred Stieglitz, called "Equivalents", the cameras turned towards the sky with either no horizon line or a minimal one to to frame and orient the view. Stieglitz called these sky pictures Equivalents because they seem to objectify the photographers inner states to be equivalents as he understood it, and he hoped that the viewer would see his or her own feelings objectified in them to make another kind of equivalence. Abstraction here in Stieglitz, which is of course a relative term, involves elevation and transcendence as it does in Crane. It also involves the effort to create a visual language that is non-objective and highly personal but also shareable, the basis for an identification between artist and viewer. Stieglitz wanted to show that his pictures were not due to subject matter, that's his phrase. He wanted to show that he could make a connection with the viewer on another basis. Crane had similar ideas in mind when he said about his task in “The Bridge”. History, fact, location, etc. all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would function almost independently of subject matter. This is one of the first things he says about his ambition in the poem. John's work from the 1950s was of course believed to announce after abstract expressionism the return of subject matter. Johns was seen to be pushing his art in just the opposite direction from Crane, but Johns' approach to subject matter poses for the viewer problems really closely related to the demands that Crane's abstract form make on the reader, and Johns' pictures need to be read in something like the way that Crane's poems do. When he sent his poem, "At Melville's Tomb”, to Harriet Monroe 00:17:56, the editor of Poetry Magazine, she wrote back challenging him to explain his champion mixed metaphors. I have just a little passage from Monroe's delightfully cranky letter. Crane did. He defended himself. He replied, in fact in terms that may help us make a connection to Johns. In Crane's poetry, words are removed. They're abstracted, if you like, from their ordinary contexts and placed in relation to one another without an interpretive framework to explain the association, and in that sense to ground and orient the reader. In a Crane poem, as in one of Steve Litz's equivalents, we enter a special type of verbal space in which connotation, the combination and interplay of words, dominates over denotation. These are all Crane's terms in his letter. Poetic language, Crane argues in this letter to Monroe, doesn't adhere to a rational representational logic. Crane says, "It's apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic quite independent of the original definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed.” In other words, Crane is saying I'm constructing a poem by taking words from other contexts, in a sense collaging them in a work, which creates its own system of relations and associations. This Crane called, actually somewhat misleadingly, I think, the logic of metaphor. The reader must fill in this logic of metaphor according to what can only be very personal faculties of recognition, establishing a kind of connection between his experience and the poet's. Crane explains the reader's sensibility simply responds by identifying this inflection of experience in the poem with some event in his own history or perceptions, or rejects it altogether. You get it or you don't he seems to say. At Melville's Tomb, the poem he was explaining and defending, connects these questions of reading to images of the sea and of drowning. The poem helpfully models the difficulty that Crane poses his reader by dramatizing his own experience of reading Melville. The poet here is writing from the position of the shore. He's looking out to sea. The conceit of the poem is that Melville has been lost at sea. He's drowned, which is entirely a fiction. Melville is buried on dry land in New York, which Crane knew, of course. In this sense, Melville's death at sea is a metaphorical event. The poet writes from the shore, presuming that Melville stood at one time in the same position that he does now, stood in that position and watched, as Crane says in the second line, "The dice of drowned men's bones bequeath an embassy" as they wash up on the shore. The dice of drowned men's bones, a kind of set of fragments and emblems and traces of those lost at sea. Here, reading Melville, Crane encounters fragments driven to the shore by the waves as he puts it in the second quatrain, “a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph, the portent wound in corridors of shell”. We, reading Crane, reading Crane's poem, are positioned in relation to Crane as Crane was to Melville, taking our place in an ongoing series of recognitions. Writing, as this poem imagines it, is an act of reading that passes on a message to another reader who becomes a writer in the act of interpreting it, reading it. The message is necessarily enigmatic and partial, what Crane calls mute evidence in his letter to Monroe. It depends on the presence of another mind to receive it, to complete the circle, to make a whole of its own only partially-integrated elements. Even then, even when this successful transmission occurs, Crane doesn't claim to have any direct access to Melville any more than we can to Crane. Here, in “At Melville's Tomb”, the elegiac subject of the poem remains outside representation. Crane says of Melville in the final line, "This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.” The literary critic Allen Grossman has observed that Crane in his work repeatedly searches literary tradition for what Grossman calls a "hermeneutic friend”. It's a wonderful phrase. He means by it a reader, often a prior writer, who can provide the interpretive framework for his poetry that Crane himself does not, a reader who's able to make the connections required by the logic of metaphor without which the poem will fail and the poet will be lost in the confusion of potential meanings, like a drowning man. Melville is one version of such a hermeneutic friend in Crane's poetry, or, more precisely, Crane takes that role in relation to Melville, while Melville sanctions Crane's poetry in this poem by his example, assisting him as it were in advance. Whitman is another version of this figure, this hermeneutic friend, in Cape Hatteras, where the symbol of understanding across time is one man's hand in another's. Describing the bridge, I stress the critical controversy about that poem, and in particular the reviewer's distaste for the handclasp with Whitman, in order to suggest really just how fraught that gesture was and to make it clear that Crane's reception was very different from the one he imagines in the poem. This is an important context for Johns' encounter with Crane. In 1926, when Crane wrote his Melville poem, the author of Moby Dick was still a marginal, generally misunderstood and disregarded figure in 19th Century American literature, although there was, in fact, a Melville revival underway, which is how Crane came to read him. In the early 1960s when Johns was reading and responding to Crane, the author of the bridge was a similarly marginal figure not yet ready for materialization in any library of America series. Johns, in other words, was approaching a poet whose reputation was very much in need of rescue and who was still waiting to be understood. Johns presents himself, I think, in his paintings as a version of that hermeneutic friend while by the reciprocal logic of recognition he asks Crane to take that role in relation to him. The point of view that Johns uses to develop this relationship to Crane is a version of that same position on shore from which Crane is writing in “At Melville's Tomb”, which is very much the subject of Land's End in 1963. The painting alludes to Crane obliquely through motifs that connect it to other paintings from this period that allude to Crane directly. For example, the three horizontal panels labeled from top to bottom, red, yellow, blue, repeat. The same pattern in passage from 1962, a painting which has the same title as one of Crane's lyrics, and that same pattern appears in a series of earlier works, some of which play with conventions of perspective in landscape painting, such as “Out the Window” or “By the Sea from 1961”, or “Folly Beach” from 1962. Those earlier pictures, including this one, “By the Sea”, and the interpretive cues that their titles suggest lead us to read the similar panels in “Land's End” as I think a kind of schematic representation of a view of the sea and no matter if that vertical sequence, red, yellow, blue doesn't quite make representational sense. “Land’s End” seems to name the position of the artist as he stands on the threshold of the artwork outside it looking in, from which the space of the work appears as a kind of chaotic foreign element, like the sea in “At Melville's Tomb”. Johns explains that he gave Land's End its title because I had the sense of arriving at a point where there was no place to stand. The painting suggests an image of that complex indeterminate place. As if to insist that there's no ground on which to stand here, Johns introduces that U on the very bottom of the picture, a stencil letter, driving from the word blue. We see it here flipped upside down, tilted as it slips from the picture plane, twisting as if it were sinking through a resistant liquid medium, and with perhaps a homophonic pun at work also suggesting that you, the second person, are sinking, too. Off to the side the letter “E” is swimming there, only half visible on the edge of the composition. Whether the hand at the center and the arm are thrusting up or, in fact, sinking down, or both, is impossible to say. That hand could be seen as, in some way, extending from the inside of the painting or from the background, rising up as if from the sea, or, as thrusting in from some position outside it, reaching into the space. While the fingers point up, the arrow in the box on the right hand side, the black arrow, points down. This tension between up and down is complicated by the uncertain relations in the picture between surface and depth, over and under, that are set up by Johns' rich over painting, which prevents us from securely establishing figure and ground in the composition. By making the “W” at the end of the word really impossible to make out, obscuring it, Johns highlights the other letters, subtly breaking apart the elements of the word. He focuses our attention, I think, on the four letters of yell, which could be read as a noun or a verb, indicating a shout from the sea or the shore. While the O can be read as a representation of that yell as, in fact, as the essential conventional lyric cry, oh. Or, perhaps as an image of an open mouth, which is in this case floating and dislocated, not clearly attached to any speaker. Johns has done something different with the word red above in the top panel, the upper panel, where it is repeated three times. Once in small red letters that rise to the surface of the picture plane. The other reds around it and below it seem to be in the background. Then, he repeats the word twice in large, dark gray letters that spell the word from left to right, and then from right to left. This reversal, from left to right and right to left, suggests that there's a kind of mirror placed between these two instances of the word. Or, maybe that one series of the word, of the letters, has been written on the back of the painting where left to right would read right to left. Uncannily, this gesture opens up the possibility that the painting has, as it were, two surfaces, a front and a back, erecto inverso is marked on both of them. The hand, of course, if we see it as the dead poet's, can be understood as a signal that's coming in this sense from the other side of the canvas, or, as we sometimes speak of the other side from death. All the elements of Land's End are reprised in “Periscope, Hart Crane", the painting in the current exhibition. Again, the three panels appear. This time, minimally differentiated by a gray palette that at the same time is opening up new possibilities for subtle ambiguities and imposes is even greater difficulties of discrimination for us as viewers. The color labels return. This time disturbingly without reference to the colors they name. There's more mirroring in the arrangement of the letters. For example, yellow in the middle of the picture is repeated twice, allowing us to read it right to left, and the left to right, with the left to right arrangement of letters heading off out of the picture plane. The dramatic change in composition between these two images, the dramatic difference, is the repositioning of the artist's hand print, which now appears not in the center of the painting but off to the right cropped as if reaching into it from outside the frame, the hand in Johns' painting draws on a very complex iconography. It refers to images from art history to other images in Johns' work and to Crane's poetry. Critics of “Land's End” and “Periscope” associate the artist's handprint with the hand that Crane was supposed to have raised from the sea. There various accounts that disagree. In the quotation from Horton, which I read, we have this sentence, "Some claim they saw an arm raised above the water." Johns' may well have had that image in mind. He's likely to have read the letters in which Crane speaks of walking hand-in-hand with his lover across Brooklyn Bridge. He knew Crane's hand clasped with Whitman at the end of Cape Hatteras. He would have encountered hands often in Crane's poetry, where they appear as an emblem of human action, of the potential for human connection. The hand clasp between men in Crane is sometimes erotic, always confirming, potentially healing or redemptive. In a poem called “Episode of Hands”, the poet describes one man bandaging another's wounded hand and then clasping it in his own. This is a poem drawing on Whitman's poems with similar imagery. That title is typical of Crane in the way it isolates the hand. That is not an episode of people, but an episode of hands is odd phrase, as if the hand could be spoken of apart from the person. The hand is for Crane a part that stands for the whole. It's a symbol of the person trying to make himself present to another. The hand is, however, always a part, a synecdoche, a thing. If it points to the person, it also marks the person's absence, partial absence, who is elsewhere, and can only be pointed to. For this reason, there is in Crane's poetry something persistently impersonal about the hand. Appropriately, in Horton's account, that is some claim they saw an arm raised above the water. The arm is weirdly cut off, an arm raised from above the water, the phrase is, and it's depersonalized. It's not Crane's arm, it's an arm. The image of the hand is conjoined in “Periscope” to other lines from Crane, another passage, and its image of the “Periscope”. These lines also come from “The Bridge” and also from “Cape Hatteras”. I'll read the central ones that Johns is clearly drawing on, "Time clears our lenses, lifts a focus, resurrects a periscope to glimpse what joys or pain our eyes can share or answer, then deflects this, shunting to a labyrinth submersed, where each sees only his dim past reversed." Well, this is a difficult passage, as difficult as any in Crane. I think the idea is something like this, after a death, erotic or emotional, time gives us the capacity for representation ... Excuse me ... for retrospection. It resurrects joys or pain that were once shared. Yet, the tool of retrospection, a periscope, doesn't allow us direct access to those feelings. We each remain submersed in the dark, confusing space, a kind of underwater labyrinth of personal memory.  Adapting this imagery in his painting, Johns seems to suggest that he and Crane make contact with each other, in fact, through a periscope, a lens raised above the sea, like a hand that relays a view from another element or plane of vision by means of mirrors. It's a way of imagining how the poem or work of art might allow the artist and viewer or the poet and reader to communicate, to glimpse each other, if only some trace of each other on either side of a barrier that neither of them can pass through. Brian Reed, a Crane critic who's written a wonderful comprehensive essay on Johns and Crane, points out that the handprint in Periscope can be understood either as a right hand entering the picture plane from outside and in front of it, or as a left hand emerging from within or behind it. This is a suggestive point. I think it might be developed in either one of two ways. If there are, in fact, two hands here, a right and a left, then we might see this as a kind of perfect meeting of hands, an overlap or overlay, suggesting, in fact, some kind of hand clasp between Johns and Crane modelled on that hand clasp of Crane with Whitman. This interpretation supports the reading of Johns' Crane paintings as an act of identification, whereby Johns tells his own story by way of Crane making himself present in the painting through Crane. But I think the hand is always a fragment in Johns, as in Crane, cut off from the person, and from that imaginary hole that's excluded by the picture frame. In this sense, I would say that neither Johns or Crane is present in that hand. It's a kind of fragment or trace belonging to neither of them, the artist or his subject. Or perhaps we could think of the hand as belonging to both of them, but only in turn. If we read the image as the artist's hand, then it can't be at the same time his subject's and vice versa. They're mirror images of one another. The picture plane intervenes between them. One reaches out, one reaches in. In the end, we may have to read the hand simply as flat on the surface as a mark. There is, however, in this image called “Cape Hatteras”, a lithograph from 1964. The title links the image explicitly to Crane's poem, as it were relocating the scene of suicide from “Periscope, Hart Crane”, to the site of his imagined rescue by Whitman in “The Bridge”. The hand, I think, here raises all of the questions about the hand that we pondered in Periscope. However we want to interpret it as Whitman's hand, Johns' hand, the hand here of rescue, I think we have to see this picture as a reply to the other. The hand here enters the composition from the left. It's larger. It's placed in the center of the central panel.nJohn Yau, a poet, has argued that the device circle in Johns' work generally alludes to Crane's image in “Cape Hatteras” of that star-glistered salver of infinity, the circle, blind crucible of endless space, which are lines just following those describing the periscope in "Cape Hatteras”. Here, the device circle is bigger, larger than the one in “Periscope”. There's a sense that, "Well, we're getting more of it. We're getting more of infinity." And yet, the hand is still isolated in space, another fragment that's pointing to a person absent outside the frame, reaching and grasping nothing. By way of conclusion, let me comment briefly on “Bridge”, this late painting that initiates the catenary series. The gray field that dominates this painting a reminds us, I think, much more of the solemn slate surfaces of early paintings such as Tennyson, “Know” or “In Memory of My Feelings”, Frank O'Hara, rather than that intricate, underwater labyrinth of “Periscope, Hart Crane”. But Crane is present here, again, through a variety of illusions. The title, of course, directs us, again, to Crane's long poem. This time, rather than explore the gesture of one hand reaching to another, which is a kind of horizontal image of a bond between men, Johns has focused on that central symbol of Crane's poem, the catenary arc of the suspension bridge, which involves a vertical movement going up as well as going across. In the two sections that frame “The Bridge”, Crane's poem, “To Brooklyn Bridge”, in the final section, Atlantis, Crane's imagery emphasizes ascent, elevation, transcendence, like Stieglitz's Equivalents. Atlantis eluding to the prophesied return of a drowned world begins through the bound cable strands, the arching path upward veering with light, the flight of strings. Crane's poem describes the catenary curve of the suspension bridge as the path of a desire for transcendence, upward movement, joining human life to a dimension beyond time. Crane says to the bridge in Atlantis, "Of stars, thou art, the stitch and stallion glow as if the bridge were a line that stitched the stars together into constellations." Crane's flight of strings becomes in Johns' “Bridge” mere string. I'm talking, of course, about the string that is suspended from one side of the canvas to the other. In place of Crane's abstract form and his transcendental transfiguration of those steel cables of history, fact and location, et cetera, Johns' supplies what a child might use to fly a kite. The image of the Big Dipper turned here upside down from the way we usually see it in fact looks like a kite, as if that crucial orienting constellation were just a whimsical construction of the human imagination. A toy. How many more stars there are than the mind can connect or the artist represent is made clear by the swirling galaxy to the left. The simplicity and fragility of the string are moving, nothing like Roebling's steel cables. As you can see when you visit here at the institute, the string sways with the air conditioning, and its shadow on the picture plane sways with it. Both ends on either side dangle down. They're loose, reminding us that the string is a piece of string, a segment of something. How are we to feel about all of this? I think that Crane, who revered Charlie Chaplin, would have understood the tragic comic spirit in which Johns has borrowed the image of the handkerchief on the left and the harlequin costume pattern on the right from Picasso. There's grief in the painting and a certain comedy too.  What I'd like to emphasize in closing, is the fact that Johns' string image is only one half of the symmetrical structure required to support a suspension bridge. The effect, therefore, is a little like looking at one hand extended, reaching for but not yet grasping another. In this way, “Bridge” seems to reach back across Johns' career to the pathos and the problems of reading that we encounter in “Periscope, Hart Crane”, even, or especially, in the way it images in only partial incomplete connection. It demonstrates the powerful connection between Jasper Johns and Hart Crane. Thank you.


That was Langdon Hammer speaking at the Art Institute of Chicago on December 13th 2007, as part of American Perspectives, a collaboration of the Art Institute, the Chicago Symphony, and the Poetry Foundation. You can read some of the Hart Crane poems that Langdon Hammer discussed by going to You'll also find an online archive of more than 8,000 poems, articles about poetry, and other audio programs to download. This has been Poetry Lectures from


Langdon Hammer discusses how the life and poetry of Hart Crane served as inspiration for artist Jasper Johns.

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