It cost 95 cents at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City in the summer of 1980. It was a second-hand copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Waldo Frank and published by Doubleday Anchor Books in 1958. On the cover was a rough drawing of black suspension cables and one tower of the Brooklyn Bridge (in lurid magenta and black), with a flock of soot-black birds flying above the cables. On the right side was the dusty orange brick wall of a tenement. The cover art was by Antonio Frasconi, the typography by Edward Gorey. The book was already used when I put down my 95 cents. Now, so many years later, I see it on my bookshelf wedged between John Berryman and Robert Lowell, and it gives me peace of mind to know it’s there, though I’m afraid to touch it for fear it might disintegrate in my hands. I keep it in honor of the effect it had on my life.
Back then, when I was twenty, I did not realize that Hart Crane had in many ways failed as a poet. What I did know was that I had not read a passage as rhetorically dense and passionate as this since Donne or Shakespeare:
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
(from Voyages, Part II)
This didn’t quite make sense to me, but the emotional power of the utterance was palpable, and I understood, perhaps without fully understanding, that this had something to do with a supra-human gaze toward the transcendent. I also sensed that this imperative was driven by a kind of ecstatic love.
Sure, many of the poems in the book didn’t make sense in a conventional way, but the integrity of the emotion came through clearly:
Down Wall from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn …
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
(from Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge)
The majesty of Crane’s dynamic cityscape was indisputable. The “cloud-flown derricks” turning through the afternoon above a bustling city brought to mind Vergil’s cranes over the dysfunctional Carthage, in the Aeneid. And then the epic line, “Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.” I knew it took ambition to write a line like that. And it took vision.
That was what I wanted, something big and pure.
Striking, too, was the bitter simplicity—and prescience—of this line:
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
(from Voyages, Part I)
These lines made me want to be a poet. I had to get to the source of those lines, the source of that power, and try to tap into it and draw up language like that from the chthonic depths or pull it down from the sky. This desire seemed to chart a course, clear if wholly impractical. The fact that someone out there (Hart Crane) had taken pains to write such lines was in itself a validation that this path meant something to someone, maybe to many people, if you could go down it the right way.
But what was the right way? Did Crane do it the right way? He did in certain passages. In other passages, he failed embarrassingly. In his life as a human being, he failed completely. As T. S. Eliot said, “it’s a mug’s game.” Who can tell now which poets will be read a hundred years hence? That’s the beauty, and the gamble, of the game. There’s no money in it.