Sunday, August 17, 2008

Satin and Vacant: Hart Crane’s “Key West”

by Mark Howell

This is not going to be easy.

Before he fell from the stern of the U.S.S. Orizaba off Key West, never to be seen again, the great American poet Hart Crane planned to produce a third collection of poetry he called “Key West: An Island Sheaf.”

The thing is, Crane never did make it to Key West, although he undoubtedly made it with a number of sailors who did.

The other problem is that the poem in the sheaf titled “Key West” is so difficult that, when all is said and done, it’s just about incomprehensible.

But not quite.

Seventy-six years after Crane made his fateful leap into our waters, now is the time to take a fresh look at “Key West” and find out what it may mean for us.

Starting at the beginning: Harold Hart Crane was born near Cleveland, Ohio, on July 21, 1899. His father made a fortune in the candy business; he originally held the patent for Life Savers but sold his interest just before they took off.

Crane’s father and mother were forever fighting; there was a lot of separating and making up. Hart (it was his mother’s maiden name) was sent to live with his maternal grandmother at the age of 9. He shared with his mother an emotional instability and at 16 he attempted suicide on the Isle of Pines off Cuba, a property owned by his mother’s family.

In 1917, after his parents divorced, Crane dropped out of high school and headed straight for New York City. There he became known for letters introducing himself, setting up meetings, writing reviews of some of the most important figures of the time such as photographer Walker Evans, artist Georgia O’Keefe and playwright Eugene O’Neill.

He began to drink heavily. Working as a cub reporter in Manhattan and at his father’s factory in Cleveland, Crane found in alcohol a state of ecstasy where his poetic phrasing lay. He felt he could not access it any other way and so he hung out in speakeasies where he associated with sailors and sinners.

“Voyages,” a seven-part sequence of poems he published in 1926, was inspired by his relationship with Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser he met in 1924. Crane was quite open about homosexuality at a time when it was not fashionable to be so.

Hart Crane is back in favor these days for his language, his “scrolls of silver snowy sentences.” As he tried to explain to critics of his first collection, “White Buildings,” the sounds of his words were like echoes, options, gateways to all kinds of meanings.

His work ranged from the obscure to the obscurer. “O Carib Isle” from the Key West sheaf is accessibly obscure:

Slagged of the hurricane —
I, cast within its flow,
Congeal by afternoons here,
Satin and vacant

while “Lachrymae Christi” is beyond obscure:

Whitely, while benzene
Rinsings from the moon
Dissolve all but the windows of the mills.

But try, sometime, reading this verse from “The Broken Tower” on wine. It’s a revelation:

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles outleaping —
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!

The poet e. e. cummings claimed that “Crane’s mind was no bigger than a pin, but it didn’t matter; he was a born poet.” Tennessee Williams said he could “hardly understand a single line” but insisted he wanted to be buried at sea at the “point most nearly determined as the point at which Hart Crane gave himself back.”

Crane had his critics — Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound come to mind — but Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to read “The Bridge” together, John Berryman wrote one of his famous elegies on Crane and heavyweight Robert Lowell included his “Words for Hart Crane” in “Life Studies.”

An aggrieved Crane once wrote to his father: “Try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful — something that maybe can’t be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication.”

The fact is, Crane did take money for his work. A smooth and affable financier, Otto Kahn, whose son was the leader of one of the great dance bands of the 1920s, advanced him the money to complete his projected poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Written on the Isle of Pines, “The Bridge” is Crane’s master work. Filled with lines like “a rip tooth of the sky’s acetylene” and “till elevators drop us from our day,” it is a nine-part epic truncated epic (he wrote the climax first) centered on the Brooklyn Bridge and it gave him tremendous trouble to complete. But he would never again write as mightily as he did on the Isle of Pines in that summer and fall of 1926.

— can you
imagine — while an EXpress makes time like
WIRES OR EVEN RUNning brooks connecting ears
and no more sermons windows flashing roar
breathtaking — as you like it … eh?
So the 20th Century — so
whizzed the Limited — roared by and left
three men, still hungry on the tracks, ploddingly
watching the tail lights wizen and converge, slip-
ping gimleted and neatly out of sight.

This verbal rendition of the train of the century (“so whizzed the Limited”) crashing through the fundaments of the nation and leaving a trinity of the hungry in its wake had a vibratory effect on the readers and writers of the time. Man Ray took Crane’s photo for Vanity Fair in 1929 and in 1930 his work was included in a New York University course in contemporary poetry. He was awarded a Guggenheim in 1931 and settled in Mexico to work on a long poem about the Aztecs.

But little was done there. In the words of Crane’s friend Waldo Frank, “the periodicity of his excesses grew swifter.” Those who’d not seen Crane for awhile were horrified at how he’d aged, his hair grey and his face, once mustached and exotic looking, become puffy and bloated. Then his publisher, Harry Crosby, killed himself.

Crane now began a heterosexual liaison with Peggy Baird, the soon-to-be ex-wife of his friend, the critic Malcolm Cowley. Peggy joined Crane in Mexico when the Cowleys agreed to divorce. Malcolm, who would later be editor of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” was actually kind to Crane, calling “The Bridge” “in many respects the most important volume of American poetry since Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’”

Crane’s drinking led to alternating bouts of depression and elation. He seemed to be drinking himself to death when his his stepmother wrote to him on April 12, 1932, following his father’s death: “Nothing can be paid from the estate account to you in the way of your bequest. There isn’t any income from stocks to speak of. We are not making any money from our different businesses. The only thing we can do is to give you an allowance from my salary each month, and that I have made arrangements to do.”

Crane spoke of suicide and is said to have made a number of wills.

He and Peggy Cowley booked themselves aboard the U.S.S. Orizaba to sail back to the States from Veracruz. In the early hours of April 27, 1932, after a stop in Havana, Crane became emotionally distressed and may have had a sexual encounter with one of the ship’s cabin boys. He was badly beaten and robbed, then tried to jump off the ship but was restrained by a member of the crew. Crane visited Cowley in her cabin and told Peggy, “I’m not going to make it, dear. I’m utterly disgraced.”

One of Crane’s fellow passengers, Gertrude Berg, recalled that that morning “he had a black eye and looked generally battered.”

Close to noon, when the passenger steamship was anywhere between 30 to 60 miles off Key West, Crane appeared on deck. “He walked to the railing,” Berg remembered, “took off his coat, folded it neatly over the railing — not dropping it on deck — placed both hands on the railing, raised himself on his toes and then dropped back.
“We all fell silent and watched him, wondering what in the world he was up to. Then, suddenly, he vaulted over the railing and jumped into the sea.
“Just once I saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.”

Other witnesses said they heard him cry, “Goodbye, everybody!” before throwing himself over the railing. His body was never recovered.
He was 32. A marker on his father’s tombstone in Garrettsville, Ohio says, “Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 LOST AT SEA.”

What Crane left behind was “Key West: An Island Sheaf.” It was literally a sheaf, a file folder complete with a table of contents and an epigram from William Blake: “The starry floor, The wat’ry shore, Is given thee ’til the break of day.”

Crane began the file in Mexico and had accumulated 18 poems by the time he jumped. “Key West” is the 15th poem in the sheaf. The others have intriguing titles: “The Mermen,” “To the Cloud Juggler,” the baffling “Connecticut-Cuban Overheard (Bacardi Spreads the Eagle’s Wings).” Many are successful, indeed terrifying; here’s how “The Hurricane” ends:

Whip sea-kelp screaming on blond
Sky-seethe, dense heaven dashing —
Thou ridest to the door, Lord!
Thou bidest wall nor floor, Lord!

But “Key West” remains the most obscure of all the works in “Key West: An Island Sheaf.” What could the poem possibly mean?

It is useless to rewrite a poem in prose in order to explain it, since poetry is meant to take us where prose won’t go. But a look at “Key West’s” four verses individually may bring its meaning to light.

It was at the Key West Literary Seminar that poet Mark Doty said that, although “he was never actually here,” Hart Crane “loved Key West.” He loved Key West because it was, by all reports, the opposite of Ohio.

In Crane’s imagination Key West was a high-risk café, a potent playground packed with people of every kind. The Key West sheaf was a kind of lifebelt to him, keeping him afloat on oceanic waves of tropical dissipation.

Here has my salient faith annealed me.
Out of the valley, past the ample crib
To skies impartial, that do not disown me
Nor claim me, either, by Adam’s spine — nor rib.

(Here in Key West the poet’s leaping faith has toughened him, who sprang from the uterus into a big crib and thence into the real world beyond the Garden of Eden.)

The oar plash, and the meteorite’s white arch
Concur with wrist and bicep. In the moon
That now has sunk I strike a single march
To heaven or hades — to an equally frugal noon.

(The splash of the oar and the arc of a falling meteorite work in unison with the rower. Under a gone moon the poet now heads either to heaven or to hell, both under a meager sun.)

Because these millions reap a dead conclusion
Need I presume the same fruit of my bone
As draws them towards a doubly mocked confusion
Of apish nightmares into steel-strung stone?

(Since the millions of dead can have reached no other conclusion than death, why need the poet go through life’s double jeopardy of a primitive past through a Brooklyn Bridge future?)

O, steel and stone! But gold was, scarcity before.
And here is water, and a little wind….
There is no breath of friends and no more shore
Where gold has not been sold and conscience tinned.

(We can sing of steel-strung stone but gold has always been around. And before gold,not much. Here at least is water and some wind … There are no people and no places left in the world untouched by how gold has coated the conscience.)

Bottom line:

We are born strong.

By the noontime of our lives we are well at sea, securely headed toward either heaven or hell.
So why go through all of that if it’s just the same old past and future?

Because we are snagged by the gold.

Not to worry about this in Key West, however.

For “here is water, and a little wind….”

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