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Letter from Poetry Magazine

William Logan Responds

William Logan responds:

I’m not sure why Neil Hampton would think that I’d waste time “tackling [the] manifest prejudice” of my original review. I still believe every word of it. Since he offers the usual apologetics for Crane’s wearying and often impenetrable obscurity, I assure him that I understand the poet’s argument, or excuses, in his letter to Harriet Monroe on the “logic of metaphor.” I simply disagree with it. (Would anyone, reading Crane’s explication, have pieced out his meaning the same way?) If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius. As for the connection between Crane and Clare, they were both from the hustings, insecure about their education, and efficient autodidacts. The main difference is that Crane was mollycoddled by wealthy parents. I would be the last to condescend to John Clare, who deserved far better than he got.

If Hampton really believes the lines on Chaplin are genius, there’s no helping him:

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.
For me, they are as hapless and tone deaf as the schmaltz about the “kitten in the wilderness” and the “moon in lonely alleys” that makes the “grail of laughter of an empty ash can.” In 1921, when Crane wrote them, Charlie Chaplin was every bit the celebrity Angelina Jolie is now. We have no equal of Chaplin; but, though Crane was awed by the Little Tramp’s art, let’s not deny it—the poet was starstruck. After Waldo Frank had dragged the actor to Crane’s apartment, the young man from Ohio reported to his mother, “I was smiling into one of the most beautiful faces I ever expect to see.”

As my critics have every reason to know, a reviewer has only a limited amount of space in which to shift—in the case of the New York Times Book Review, no more than two thousand words. If I were reviewing Eliot’s poems and letters, I’d be obliged to talk about his life as well as his art—I doubt there would be room for a complete account of the structure of The Waste Land or for close readings of its lines. You wouldn’t know from Marjorie Perloff’s characterization that almost half my original review was spent on The Bridge, both the poem and its composition.

No essay of mine on the subject of Hart Crane would please Perloff, but let me answer some of her questions and, no doubt, confirm many of her suspicions. She seems to understand that many critics, once upon a time, found Crane’s rhetoric hard to bear; but then she asks questions that seem disingenuously naive. Since she asks, I find the “Proem” of The Bridge stuffed with the excesses of detail, some slight and some more egregious, for which Crane’s style is notorious—among the adjectives, I dislike the religious hint in the bridge’s “inviolate” curve (I like the “chained” bay waters better, as long as I think of them visually and not, as I suspect Crane preferred, “shackled”), the empty rhetoric of the movie house’s “flashing” scene, the over-richness of the “silver-paced” bridge, the melodrama of the “shrill” shirt of the suicide and the “cloud-flown” derricks, and the false piety of “speechless” in the slightly nonsensical line “A jest falls from the speechless caravan.” Among the nouns, Crane is overegging the pudding with his subway “scuttle”; his seagull’s “white rings of tumult”; the exaggeration of the “rip-tooth” of noon light and the sky’s “acetylene”; and, worst of all, his wretched “bedlamite” — is this a real madman, escaped from his “cell or loft,” or just a hapless, fed-up, crazed commuter? I’m not sure what the speechless “caravan” might be, it could be so many things (likely he means just the passing crowd)—but I’m sure Crane would have had some ingenious explanation for it.

Why go on with such dispiriting detail, or try to tease out every banality Crane tortured into verse? I’d start with the lines I once quoted, in which the dirigible, his ungainly symbol of progress (he put his money on the wrong symbol), was ludicrously addressed:
Cetus-like, O thou Dirigible, enormous Lounger
Of pendulous auroral beaches, — satellited wide
By convoy planes, moonferrets that rejoin thee
On fleeing balconies as thou dost glide.
Cetus-like? Pendulous auroral beaches? Moonferrets? It’s not that these are obscure, not exactly (the whale-like dirigible lounges on the beach-like, pendulous clouds, surrounded by its convoy of planes that look like, well, moonferrets)—it’s that the rhetoric is so childish and extravagant. With Crane, you either accept such romantic goofiness, along with a host of O thou’s and thou dost’s, or you don’t. Alas, I’m not even keen about the symbol at the heart of the poem, the bridge itself—epic poems have been built from unlikely things, but the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the least likely.

I admire Langdon Hammer’s edition, but his notes are hit and miss—there are all sorts of references in the letters left unexplained (the “famous Stevens-35,” anyone?), though similar things are given delicate attention. Shouldn’t we be told that “Menchen” was presumably H.L. Mencken? Younger readers, at least, might need to know who Billy Sunday was. Who is Mr. Charles Brooks, whose book, There’s Pippins and Cheese to Come, Crane recommends? Or Jean Catel? Or Mr. Ely and Miss Bohn? To call Walter Camp merely a “sportswriter” rather stints on his achievements. Why not note that when Crane pretended to write from the ship Rumrunia, he was joking? And so on. More culpably, Hammer is factually parsimonious about Crane’s borrowings from the manuscripts of Samuel Greenberg for “Emblems of Conduct” (almost entirely composed of lines and phrases from the dead young poet), and in much lesser ways for “Voyages” and other poems. Greenberg is mentioned only twice in the notes, where Hammer leaves a misleading impression about the extent of Crane’s indebtedness. Further, the editor omits the letter Crane wrote to Gorham Munson on December 20, 1923, detailing Crane’s close reading and copying from Greenberg’s notebooks.

I’m sorry if Perloff mistakes my tone as world-weary or condescending, but there’s no helping that—I won’t apologize for mocking, a little, a poet whom so many readers blindly adore. (Had Crane’s taste run to chorus girls instead of sailors, I’d have been no less sardonic—it was the constant self-destructive indulgence that’s worth recording.) Crane was the architect of his own grand disaster. The disaster of the life didn’t ennoble the art—it was responsible for the failure of the art.

I wish Perloff had provided me with a wall chart of “every important American poet from Robert Lowell to the present” and “every major critic of the past few decades, beginning with Harold Bloom.” This is a carefully delimited list—she knows that Crane’s poems have excited hostility among critics, even very great critics, since the books were published. Perhaps I’m out of step with the critics of our day—but is there anything more deadening than a consensus? I’m bemused by a critic who thinks like a commissar, as if something must be true because at the moment everyone believes it. In a stray scan of my shelves, I could not find that two critics I admire, Christopher Ricks and Geoffrey Hill, had written much or anything about Crane (though Hill in “Improvisations for Hart Crane” writes, “All in all / you screwed us, Hart, you and your zany epic” — his feelings seem mixed).

I must assume that Perloff is the victim of her own exaggerations. As for American poets, Lowell adored Crane, it’s true—though the younger man was a better poet when he had purged his verse of Crane’s influence. But look at Lowell’s own generation. Randall Jarrell was supposed to write a book on Crane yet never managed to get very far. In a review of Dylan Thomas, he wrote, “[Thomas’s poems] mean much less than Crane’s—but when you consider Crane’s meanings, this is not altogether a disadvantage.” John Berryman, though influenced by Crane, said in a letter, “Crane had probably the most useless mind any poet worth mentioning has had,” and in a review referred to the “successive logical disintegration” of Crane’s poetry. Elizabeth Bishop wrote, after finishing books of letters by Crane and Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humor, at least.” Of Crane’s most ambitious poem, “I went through The Bridge all very carefully again, and like it less.”

Nothing I say will convince these critics that Crane was a flawed genius, if a genius at all. I say that he wrote barrels of lovely lines and two or three poems of sustained attention and achievement, but also that he squandered his gifts, falling prey to preposterously silly phrases, heavy-handed rhetoric, sewer-pipe obscurity, and the worst kinds of sentiment—all of which a reader could forgive, if Crane had written more great poetry. What little he wrote will have to be enough, but I think it far littler than these critics who have had the kindness to write. I feel about Crane as the curate did about the rotten egg he had been served, that it was excellent in parts.

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Poet and critic William Logan was born in Boston in 1950 and earned degrees from Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1975, his work—both poetry and criticism—has regularly appeared in major journals and publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and...

Letter from Poetry Magazine

William Logan Responds

  • Poet and critic William Logan was born in Boston in 1950 and earned degrees from Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1975, his work—both poetry and criticism—has regularly appeared in major journals and publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and...

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