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Adventures of Lehman

Glad to be Unhappy (with Hart Crane and Lorenz Hart) [by David Lehman]

Vesper_CocktailToday is July 21. Hart Crane was born today, so I reread his “Chaplinesque,” a poem inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Kid. Crane recognized Chaplin as a kindred spirit on an artistic mission like his own. The “we” in the poem stands for the two of them: “We can still love the world, who find / A famished kitten on the step.” In a letter Crane makes it clear that the kitten stands for poetry, and what the poem appears to be saying is that the redemptive nature of modern art makes it a Romantic enterprise, a secular version of a spiritual project.

These are magnificent lines: “We have seen / The moon in lonely alleys make / A grail of laughter of an empty ashcan.” The key phrase here, “a grail of laughter,” is a great example of a poetic image that defies logical analysis, for we instinctively grasp it as a figure of the sublime, though we know that a grail cannot be “of” laughter in any conventional sense. It is a poem I have read many times, and on one of these it dawned on me that Crane’s first name was a hidden subject in the stanza of the poem in which “you” may or may not stand for the world:

We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

I am not sure how to construe these lines regardless of whether heart refers to the organ of the body associated with sentiment and romance or to the artist in general and Hart Crane in particular. Why would “blame” attach itself “to us” in either case “if the heart live on”? Who are “you” that we – the artist as embodied by Charles Chaplin and the poet in their separate realms – can evade? It is a difficult poem -- most of Crane’s are -- but then again, conventional meaning is not necessarily what one prizes in Crane’s poetry. Rather it’s the promise of a new meaning, ambiguous and elusive but full of possibility, as exemplified in such a triumphant phrase as “a grail of laughter.”

Poetic logic works in unusual ways, and it’s no accident that several of Robert Frost’s signature poems take place on cold winter nights, or that Hart Crane depicts the heart as inescapable and enduring, or that in a Rodgers and Hart song you can’t be in love unless your “heart stands still.” When Larry Hart writes, in My Funny Valentine, “you make me smile in my heart,” is there a clue here about the nature of the love Hart felt for Rodgers, which the latter could not reciprocate? (Here’s how Frederick Nolan concludes chapter two of his biography of Hart: “Poor Larry,” one of his close friends said. “What a shame he had to fall in love with Dick.”[1]) Could the song’s “unphotographable” but lovable individual, whose “looks are laughable,” be Hart himself? Picture Hart in the splendor of his wit and the sadness of his being the next time you listen to "With a Song in My Heart" or "My Heart Stood Still" and see if it makes a difference.

[1]  Frederick Nolan, Lorenz Hart (Oxford UP, 1994), p. 19.


June 21, 2021

June 19, 2021

June 18, 2021

June 11, 2021

June 10, 2021

June 01, 2021

May 28, 2021

May 26, 2021

May 24, 2021

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May 09, 2021

May 06, 2021

April 25, 2021

April 21, 2021

April 19, 2021

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April 11, 2021

April 02, 2021

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