Hart Crane was a poetic genius who was driven, and hampered, by his self-destructive personality. His alcoholism, sexual excesses and volatile behavior gave him the illusion of personal stability and lead to his greatest poems, but also brought his tragic doom. Crane s poems, though not always autobiographical, can be understood by looking at the occurrences in his turbulent life. Crane acted as his own worst enemy. The feeling, mood, style and form of Crane s poems mirrored his many mood swings. While his moods were ever-changing, the central issue of his career always remained the composition of his novel-length poem, "The Bridge." Hart Crane s poetry rarely documented his biography, but his poems can be best understood by examining the events of his life.
"Crane was a confirmed drunkard, suffering attacks of delirium tremens irritable, depressed, unhappy and unable to sleep" (Thompson, 18). His poems don t chronicle these events, but his poetry reflects a tortured being who was a victim of his own personality, history, and lifestyle. Crane lived a frightened childhood. His mother was monstrous, his father callous, and together they were horrendous. These family troubles affected his mindset from his childhood on and possibly triggered his whole emotional imbalance.
He received great disapproval and was ousted by his father because he chose poetry over business. Crane never had closeness with his parents. His "new thresholds, new anatomies" (Crane, 25), revealed by alcohol, along with his apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, all shaped the themes and styles of poems. He found fantastic sights and sounds agitated by drinking. This understanding of his life provides an understanding of where Crane s topics, themes and feelings of poems originated. His view of the Brooklyn Bridge inspired him to write a novel-length collection of poems that immortalized this structure.
Gazing a the bridge, a modern wonder of engineering across the East River in New York, provided a bit of comfort in Crane s roller-coaster life. His poems almost never showed or described his sexual promiscuity, alcoholism or other kinds of amoral behavior. Crane celebrated the modern world and presented the positive values of American history in his poetry. Throughout his life, Crane was his own worst enemy. Crane often spoiled the good intentions of the people who tried to help him. He found influential friends " who were ready to accept him as he was, to tolerate his enormous self-esteem, to sing his praises even more loudly then he himself sang them, to beat patiently his antics and eccentricities" (Weber, 296).
When he was jobless, his friends turned heaven and earth to find him work. Unfortunately, one after another, Crane could not or would not hold onto his friends. He often insulted them and shrugged off their pleasantries. He was also beset by bad judgment. He was a heavy drinker and made poor choices in personal relationships. Crane never tried to solve his alcohol problem and despite powerful dangers he would constantly venture to the waterfronts in search of sailors.
He was often jailed, beaten or robbed during these episodes of drunkenness and homosexual soliciting. His health was wasted and his hair was gray before he was 30. Hart Crane threw away many opportunities. Although he dropped out of high school, he had the chance to enter Columbia University. He hired a tutor to prepare him for entrance into Columbia, but he did not like the discipline and abandoned the whole idea. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931, he became more widely known and received recognition and praise for his poems.
Instead of using the award to advance himself, Crane jumped from the deck of a cruise ship returning from Mexico, killing himself in 1932. Writing the novel-length poem "The Bridge" took Crane seven years (1923-1930) and became the focus of his life and career. Crane s personal problems and travails proved to be time-consuming hurdles as he wrote "The Bridge." He was distracted by his periods of depression, alcoholism, and other personal sufferings. Despite everything, "The Bridge" showed Crane to be a resolved and driven writer, able to rethink and revise his work. This poem shows that Crane could work toward goals and achieve what he wanted.
He never forgot his desire to become a well-respected poet. He wrote the verses of "The Bridge" with simplicity and directness, explaining his feeling to what was at the time, an unprepared world. Some critics call "The Bridge" brilliant, his greatest achievement. Others label "The Bridge" as the best literary work of Crane s generation. "The Bridge" has " deft explication and lights up with stunning verbal surprises " (Unterecker, 658). But others look at "The Bridge" as a " composite of salvaged fragments, whirling rhetoric and powerful hallucinatory phrases, a flawed semi-epic " (Parkinson, 128).
Crane s peers saw "The Bridge" as structurally incoherent and loosely emotional. Whether observed as a masterpiece or a flawed work, "The Bridge" undeniably makes profound statements about the modern industrialized world and the urbanized world. Crane s poems reflected his many mood swings. During his lucid and happy periods, Crane exhibited poetic genius.
He showed his audiences a rare lyric sense. Crane came up with stunning bolts of poetic illumination. But when Crane entered his tortured periods, his poetry suffered, becoming dense and enigmatic. The stanzas and verses became obscure, overblown, even silly and " at times almost incomprehensible." (Brunner, 164) His despondency can be seen in "At Melville s Tomb," as he wrote "a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph." (Mariani, 79) During the healthy periods of his life, Crane finally completed "The Bridge" and other longtime works. While vacationing with clearer thoughts than usual, Crane wrote "The Broken Tower." During a wave of "drinking, writing, making love, and enjoying himself" (Sherman, 246), Crane s created one of his most strictly controlled, most flawlessly rhymed and most impassioned poems: The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower; And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score Of broken intervals...
And I, their sexton slave! (Crane, 156) When his head was clear, Crane could push forward and easily see his goals. Hart Crane was one of his time s greatest poets. His lack of self-control lifted his poems with a unique style, but also weighed down his career. Hart Crane s volatile personality gave life to several remarkable poems, including "The Bridge," but also took his very life in the end.
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The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1999. Parkinson, Thomas.
Hart Crane and Ivor Winters: Their Literary Correspondence. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1979. Sherman, Paul. Hart's Bridge. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
Thompson, Ralph. "Books." The New York Times Book Review. 18 May 1937. 18. Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Unter meyer, Louis. "Poet Stranded on a Bridge." The New York Times Book Review. 19 July 1969. 27-29. Weber, Brom.
The Letters of Hart Crane: 1916-1932. New York: Hermitage House.