It’s a mysterious process, how a poem starts and grows, what makes it take root, why this and not that. And the writing, the building-up or building-down, from these words or those, to those finished quatrains or these couplets, to something free-form, or to some mix of all of them, all those choices guided by the inspired hand of—well, of something, art, God, intuition, “the wind that blows through me,” who knows its name? In the end, we as writers or readers may not know exactly what happened, only that something happened, because the evidence is there before us, in the finished poem on the bounded white space of the page (or not so finished: the poem, as Paul Valery says, is never finished, only abandoned).
What we don’t see so much is the start, the ur-moment, the angelic troubled mix that takes place in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” I want to talk in this essay about that process, and its costs, and about the instigation, those shards and beginnings that begin the magic, that somehow start or inspire the poem into motion. Some of these instigators are humble, a few unsuspected words perhaps, a surprising rhythm found or heard somewhere, a haunted traction, that may lay around for days or months even years, waiting its moment to launch the journey into the dark place, to bring back the gold that, in Ezra Pound’s wonderful phrase, “gathers the light about it.”
We have a record of the hot externals of that process of creation for one poet, Hart Crane, a poet for whom the inspired moment of composition seemed to whose who witnessed it an ecstatic Dionysian plunge, the poet obliterating all consciousness of his surroundings as he retreated to some inner place to write—but what was seen by the witnesses was only in fact half-seen, for it was actually preceded by months of waiting for the right compositional moment, and then was followed by more months of hard private labor. The compositional moment, the lightning strike, was the important point in the process where the bits collected so painstakingly over weeks and months came finally together, and it could occur anywhere, at any time, often for Crane under copious inducements of alcohol, or anyway of some extreme condition; but it was not the final and perhaps not even the definitive moment.
Here’s how it would have looked had you been there: Imagine that it’s the mid-1920’s and you’re an artist at a party with friends, all themselves New York City-based artists and art-interested types, away from your digs in Greenwich Village, out in the country for the summer, in Patterson, NY, just over the line from Connecticut. You’re all staying in an old farmhouse for $10 a month, taking this long vacation, an essential part of a life lived on the cheap, intended to allow you and your group to pick your jobs selectively, taking only as much in money and giving only as much in time as you need to live and eat, but never enough to interfere with your ability to do your best work, and not ever enough to risk commodification or surrender to the workaday ethos that destroys so many talented others by drowning their visions in daily drudgery. This is a cocooned life you’re living, in a charmed circle, and it is like living on a private island. This particular day you’ve spent the afternoon playing croquet, with a pitcher of hard cider barely hidden in the tall grass (it is Prohibition, after all), to which everyone returns between shots, and now it’s evening and you’re all gathered around a warm fire in the house as the rain begins. Here among you is the poet Hart Crane, whom many people are talking about these days, an intense man, laughing twice as hard as the rest of you, drinking twice as much. The rumor is that his first book is close to completion and he is looking for a publisher, that he is hoping the book will come with a foreword by Eugene O’Neill (when it comes it will have a forward by another in your group, Allen Tate, O’Neill having written it but was so dissatisfied with the result that he bowed out). Sometime in the middle of the revelry a change comes over Crane, and with it an inner imperative for action, a call by the gods of poetry:
Gradually he [Crane] would fall silent, and a little later he disappeared. In lulls that began to interrupt the laughter, now Hart was gone, we would hear a new hubbub through the walls of his room—the phonograph playing a Cuban rumba, the typewriter clacking simultaneously; then the phonograph would run down and the typewriter stop while Hart changed the record, perhaps to a torch song, perhaps to Ravel’s Bolero. Sometimes he stamped across the room, declaiming to the four walls and the slow spring rain.
An hour later, after the rain had stopped, he would appear in the kitchen or on the croquet court, his face brick-red, his eyes burning, his already iron-gray hair bristling straight up from his skull. He would be chewing a five-cent cigar which he had forgotten to light. In his hands would be two or three sheets of typewritten manuscript, with words crossed out and new lines scrawled in. “R-read that,” he would say. “Isn’t that the grreatest poem ever written?”
This passage and others cited in this essay are from Malcolm Cowley’s wonderful book, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics). Cowley was a close friend and admirer of Crane, and for many years after his death, he said, he couldn’t bring himself to write about his friend’s last days. (He finally did in his memoir of the 1930’s, The Dream of the Golden Mountains, Viking, 1980). He knew Crane well enough to see at close hand the poet’s labor in creating his poem, the pushing and pulling and nudging that would go on for months, and continue even after a poem had been accepted and printed in one of the literary magazines. It was never finished for him, the language was always only a temporization, approximating the vision. That moment they all witnessed in the farmhouse, Cowley said, may have appeared to be one of the visible instances of creation, but it was more the moment of assembly than the instant of composition, and not the first nor the last moment of the poem. Crane, as it turned out for this and for pretty much all his poems, would have been meditating over the poem for months or even years, writing notes and lines on pieces of paper that he carried always with him, waiting for the inspiration needed to tell him how to put them all together. And then after it hit in that enormous surge of need and energy came the rest of the labor:
As for the end of the story, it might be delayed for a week or a month. Painfully, persistently—and dead sober—Hart would revise his new poem, clarifying the images, correcting the meter and searching for the right word hour after hour. “The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise,” in the second of his “Voyages,” was the result of a search that lasted for several days. At first he had written, “The seal’s findrinny gaze toward paradise,” but someone had objected that he was using a nonexistent word. Hart and I worked in the same office that year, and I remember his frantic searches through Webster’s Unabridged and the big Standard, his trips to the library—on office time—and his reports of consultations with old sailors in South Street speakeasies. “Findrinny” he could never find, but after paging through the dictionary again he decided that “spindrift” was almost as good and he declaimed the new line exultantly…. There were many poets of the 1920s who worked hard to be obscure, veiling a simple idea in phrases that grew more labored and opaque with each revision of a poem. With Crane it was the original meaning that was complicated and difficult; his revisions brought it out more clearly. He said, making fun of himself, “I practice invention to the brink of intelligibility.” The truth was that he had something to say and wanted to be understood, but not at the cost of weakening or simplifying his original vision.
This story verifies the careful and conscientious craftsman that Crane was, working his images hard as he developed his poem. His was not, as some have suggested, automatic writing or in any sense careless or tasteless writing; rather it was the effort to accurately portray the captured moment, words and images carefully shaped through repeated workings. The passage also shows how he worked upward from the word to the image and to the line and the poem. “Findrinny” is not a word, though it had a spine and a sound that Crane liked in conjunction with “gaze,” and so incorporated into his line for a time, until it was replaced by “spindrift.”
Here, I suggest, is where we can see even more clearly how Crane worked. His habitual mode was to find new associations between words, creating relationships of meaning that had not existed before he brought the words together. One reads the new association in this poem—that “spindrift gaze”—and thinks, yes, ok, that’s i t, that’s right. And it is right, but in how strange a way! It is an odd word, “spindrift,” but it is also one of those words that we feel we know immediately when we hear it. A little research shows that it is an old word, derived from the Scottish word spene, to sail before the wind, and the word “drift.” It was probably first coined in the mid 1500’s. It refers to the spray blown from cresting waves in a gale, which “drifts” in the direction of the gale. A gale, to continue this pedantry a little farther, has a Force 8 wind speed, of 39-46 mph, equal to 34-40 knots, and produces moderately high waves of length, with the edges of the crests beginning to break into spindrift, and foam blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind. A spindrift gaze toward paradise would then be a violent, elemental, and intense view, a gaze that rides on a crest of wave as it looks toward paradise. In the poem—this is section II of “Voyages”—it is the gaze of a seal (a seal? Yes, it was a surprise to me too; I discuss it below) that is being described, a gaze that has rich implications for the rest of us, who make up that anonymous collective the poet claims to speak for here, and who are at this moment in the poem in our graves:
Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—
Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.
Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
I said that that seal was a surprise to me, and remains so no matter how many times I read this poem. It is not prepared for, it simply appears, and honestly, it would be a comical intrusion except for that adjective “wide,” and the act of gazing toward paradise. The poetry takes over, with the vowel sounds of the “a”’s, “e”’s, and “i”’s somehow lifting the moment of this unexpected visitor to an instant of profundity. Something has been found, or maybe better stated, something has been created, in the conjunction of the words, that did not exist before Crane put them together: “spindift gaze.” A new thing, aided by the music of the line that surrounds the words, and come to this juncture not feeling at all distorted or forced but independently alive, full of life, almost natural, as if you or I might say to each other one day, looking out to the ocean, a word or two about the “spindrift gaze” of those others clustered along the beach.
As for the seal, there may be a source, though it is external to the poem, and more than a little extravagant. I got the hint for it from Harold Bloom, a great lover of Crane’s work, who suggests that “Voyages” in its entirety is actually a poem of lost love, a requiem in eros for Crane’s one true love attachment, to Emil Opffer (this from Bloom’s terrific The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, Random House Publishing Group). And Bloom sees the sea’s role here as the sea of death, as the end of love, and then suggests that this section of the poem parallels in small the plot of Moby Dick, with the Pequot falling into the vortex, “the conceptual image of whirlpool that will end Crane and his lover in the yearning glance of Moby-Dick’s young seals seeking their lost mothers, a paradise unknown.” It’s an interesting notion, and seeks to rationalize the presence of the seal as a borrowing or entrance into the poem from some images of Melville. If it is a correct reading, it also offers a view of some of the machinery behind the poem, some movement off the staging of the words, in the back room where the poetry starts. The scene with the seals is from Moby Dick, Chapter 126, the Life Buoy:
Those rocky islands the ship had passed were the resort of great numbers of seals, and some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail. But this only the more affected some of them, because most mariners cherish a very superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more than once been mistaken for men.
Can this reading be right? I don’t know for sure, or at least don’t know it for sure in the way you would know your multiplication tables; but the poem is so oddly and wonderfully put together that it is possible to accept the magical entrance of the seals looking toward paradise without necessarily needing to know their provenance. Certainly the passage from Melville enriches the sense of why the seals should be there, but it is not wholly necessary to know about its existence at the level of the poem as presented to us, which is the level of magical entrances and exits. In such a poem it is possible to view the image of seals looking toward paradise as not necessarily absurd, and as even acceptable.
This is not the first time that Crane has lifted or borrowed a sense of meaning, or image, or even, as we shall see below, specific words and rhythms from Melville, whom he very much admired. He was enraptured by Moby Dick, and said that by June 1926 he had read the novel three times. His relationship to the book and its author was more than fan-boy admiration; he found in it many of the structures and even words that he made and incorporated into his poetry. I am not suggesting by this that Melville “makes” Crane, or makes Crane’s poetry, but that his work is there in Crane’s imagination, occupying an honored spot in his spiritual library, and so is one of the instigators of much of his work. I want to focus in the next sections a little more on Crane’s use of language, and on the relationship between Crane and Melville, as a way to discuss methods and sources in the creation of his poems.
The process we have described about Crane’s mode of composition suggests something more than Wordsworth’s notion of “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” or “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions.” It is a heightened visionary moment of induced ecstasy, followed by the hard labor of fitting the thing seen to the words that had been accumulating, a process more Rimbaud than Wordsworth, more mosques at the bottoms of lakes than intimations of anything. But, as we have seen, if the words he used were true to the vision, they were not always true to the language or to ordinary logic of the world as it is commonly understood by those who must get about in it. He needed his own language, or at least, a language that could carry his own meanings, but he used the words of our common language for this purpose. They were the only words he had, and were the only way that the poetry got to the page. I believe that he thought in those words, and that the words created or half-created the vision, and that the meanings he ascribed to them seemed to him a perfectly normal—no: a perfectly necessary—thing for a poet like him to do.
As illustration, here is a 1926 exchange between Crane and Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. Crane at the time is still composing the poems that will occupy his first book, White Buildings, and has submitted his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” to the magazine. Ms. Monroe reads it and responds, perhaps with some exasperation: “Take me for a hard-boiled, unimaginative, unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else). . . . I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.”
Crane’s response is below. Here is the poem she was writing to him about:
At Melville’s Tomb
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
Crane responded in two ways: specifically, to her comments on the images in the poem, and also generally, giving his view of what poetry and poets must be allowed to do in language.
Specifically, he said, “Dice bequeath an embassy, in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having ‘numbers’ but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seem legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.”
About the calyx, he wrote, “This calyx refers in a double ironic sense both to a cornucopia and the vortex made by a sinking vessel. As soon as the water has closed over a ship, this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter so far as any complete record of the recent ship and her crew is concerned. In fact, about as much definite knowledge might come from all this as anyone might gain from the roar of his own veins, which is easily heard (haven’t you ever done it?) by holding a shell close to one’s ear.”
On “frosted eyes,” he says that it, “[r]efers simply to a conviction that a man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity—such a man naturally postulates a deity somehow, and the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching.”
And finally, about the words compass, quadrant, etc., he said, “Hasn’t it often occurred that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured? This little bit of ‘relativity’ ought not to be discredited in poetry now that scientists are proceeding to measure the universe on principles of pure ratio, quite as metaphorical, so far as previous standards of scientific methods extended, as some of the axioms in Job.”
There’s an old line about how what you see depends on where you sit, and that may be as true for Ms. Monroe’s reading of the poem as for Crane’s explanation of his use of language. Certainly these explanations are eccentric and the definitions and associations he offered are even perhaps hermetic as he insists that his private meanings and conjunctions may be as valid in a poem’s language as more ordinary and common understandings. In a sense, he argues against the idea that a poem can ever be about its paraphrase, and that rather it must be about its own logic of meanings, and about itself. He does not say this in defense, but he might have noted that the setting of the poem is not Melville’s actual tomb which, title notwithstanding, is a stone slab in a cemetery in the Bronx, but is given in the poem as the sea—“This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.” He claims a large license for his and any poet’s use of language: “The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.”
The arguments against this position are easy and vast, and have to do with the effect on intelligibility of the piece as written and about what the level of clarity and understanding an author owes his audience. The arguments in favor of the position are the artifacts of Crane’s own poems, and those of the poets he cites in his letter to Monroe: Blake, Eliot, and also many others, who used words in similarly constructed ways. Genius, in its works, always claims broad scope, the right to the unfettered moment. What is key to note in this colloquy is Crane’s way with language, the description of his building up of the poem from the words, not from their denotations, which are discarded quickly, but from connotations and fuzzy-logic associations, so that the selected meanings join as needed while the others fall away as irrelevant to the requirements of the poem, just so much specious chaff disappeared into there wind during the time of the poem. Crane saw, or felt, those associations, and made it his labor to discern them in crafting the poem.
Crane’s method of working also imposes a responsibility on us as readers, if we are truly to appreciate the extent of his achievement, or even for that matter to judge and denigrate it. That’s because his method calls on us to discriminate as readers the words he uses in the same way that he worked on them as writer, and to do so not just this or that piece of a poem, but the totality of the individual poem, and indeed in the totality of the poems in his book, White Buildings. Others have pointed out that there are connections in and between the poems, and made a credible case about how they echo each other. And we have just seen how the words work on each other, and how carefully chosen they are, how much he expects of himself, and of us. He set a high and difficult bar to meet, and understandably, not every effort works. When it doesn’t, we’re left with a sense of artificiality, the irresolution that attends an arbitrary parlor trick, the handkerchief that makes the egg disappear too obviously into the sleeve, where it sheds its goo. But when the effort does its work, the effect is truly magical.
The end of the story of the exchange of letters between Crane and Monroe was some level of acceptance on her part, or perhaps a belief that the discussion was worth sharing, for she took the poem and printed it along with their exchange of letters.
We discussed above how the seals in Moby Dick may have entered “Voyages II.” Here is another place where Crane’s relation to Melville helps churn something in his consciousness as it works to produce a poem. In this case the poem is “Repose of Rivers,” written in early summer of 1926 and published in The Dial in September of that year. Here is a sentence from Chapter 58 of Moby Dick, where Melville describes “vast meadows” of “the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds” and continues,
As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.
And here is the opening stanza of “Repose of Rivers”:
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.
Note the parallel words: “mead,” “sound,” “mowed (mowers),” “sea,” “marsh (marshy),” “slow (slowly),” and the sense or meaning of “cutting” and “scythes” with “mowed on the mead.” Other parts of the poem draw inspiration from another piece of Melville’s, “The Encantadas.” Those words shared by Crane and Melville did not create the poem, or the stanza, and the poem is not drawn from these words and scenes; I am not suggesting either thing. But I can imagine the words as instigating the poem, or creating a creative mental friction that resulted in the poem, like the grain of sand in the oyster that produces the pearl. Here perhaps were words or a sentence that Crane carried with him a long time, working on his psyche, developing into something else. And not just the words, but also the rhythms: There is a rhythm in the words Melville uses, as he writes “side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes…” Crane’s words, and more, the internal vowel and consonant echoes, and the sound echoes of the words, give us a rhythm that to the ear seem surprisingly similar: “That seething, steady leveling of the marshes…” the “sarabande the wind mowed on the mead…” Crane is working and reworking not just the words but the rhythms and sounds of these lines. He has heard something in the Melville sentence, and it is profoundly moving at some level of his creative poet’s soul, and he carries it in his head and he works his works to that rhythm. Here is the full poem:
REPOSE OF RIVERS
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.
Flags, weeds. And remembrance of steep alcoves
Where cypresses shared the noon’s
Tyranny; they drew me into hades almost.
And mammoth turtles climbing sulphur dreams
Yielded, while sun-silt rippled them
How much I would have bartered! the black gorge
And all the singular nestings in the hills
Where beavers learn stitch and tooth.
The pond I entered once and quickly fled—
I remember now its singing willow rim.
And finally, in that memory all things nurse;
After the city that I finally passed
With scalding unguents spread and smoking darts
The monsoon cut across the delta
At gulf gates … There, beyond the dykes
I heard wind flaking sapphire, like this summer,
And willows could not hold more steady sound.
We know some things about Crane’s life at this time. He had written this poem, or most of it anyway, on his brief stay in Grand Cayman, during a longer trip to the Isle of Pines. He was deeply depressed at the time, both by the troubled passage to the island, where he had intended to stay the summer to work on The Bridge, and by his reading of Spengler’s Decline of the West, with its suggestion that western civilization was entering the final stages of its Faustian bargain for existence. He was having a hard time writing. The passage to the island had occurred over four unbearably hot and humid days instead of the two that had been planned, and many of the passengers were sick on board, perhaps from the heat and the vile drinking water, and there were constant mosquitos to fend off. The experience left him deflated emotionally. He says, in a June 26 letter to Waldo Frank, “it is absurd to say that one is battling indifference; but neither does one build out of an emptied vision… at times it seems demonstrable that Spengler is quite right. At pres— I’m writing nothing….” He also mentions that he is “cooking up a couple of other short poems,” among them one he calls “The Tampa Schooner,” which is the ur-name for the poem that will become “Repose of Rivers.” His unhappiness, in this case, was a gift, as was the boat journey, for they coalesced to provide an environment and a theme for the new poem. “Repose of Rivers” at at least one level is about a journey by water to the ocean, from the smaller water to larger, and from peace to storm; but it has many moving parts, as we discuss below.
We have seen the words and rhythms that instigated the start of it, but what else can we know about this poem? As with the Melville poem, we note that the poet is not following rules of logic or providing words anchored to real-world descriptions: Willows, for example, may make a sound as wind blows through, but how do they “carry” it? And in what possible world does the wind “mow” a sarabande? A sarabande is a older form of a slow, stately Spanish dance in triple time. It may be possible to imagine a sort of double-pun working at the level of the language: the mowing being a sound of the dance, and the Sarabande having a sound like something that might cut (because of that syllable, “band”); but honestly, I find these kinds of associations strained.
We see other other odd uses of the language. We can almost imagine marshes leveling or at least being leveled by gravity or heated evaporations of summer, for example, but how is it possible for something called “sun-silt,” whatever that may be, to “ripple” a mammoth turtle “asunder” in “sulphur dreams”? For that matter, how is anything rippled asunder? We have moved beyond the use of words to describe a world, to something else, to the sounds of words, to words stripped of denotation in favor of deeply eccentric connotations and private meanings, to the magic of singing willows and a world where it is possible to barter a black gorge and singular nesting of something unnamed, for something else unnamed, to visit a city with scalding unguents, to…. well, you get the idea. The point is that these are not images so much as words and word forms that point toward images, or suggest them, placeholders of sense that hint at some apprehensible meaning about to come or that tease us into thinking that it can arrive with just a little more work on our part. To that extent, they are almost Swinburnian, the poet about whom Eliot said, “When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.” And yet—what words! Beautiful and startling enough to make us want to understand their relations, and to submit to the temptation of forgiving them in belief that they point to something greater than we are seeing at first read.
Several readers, tempted so, have concocted plots or narratives for the poem. And so perhaps we can, with effort, join them in constructing a story, a sort of plot for the poem by first delineating its structure. The poem centers around wind and water, and describes a movement from one place to another, from the pond to the sea from slow wind to monsoon, from the pond the poet can enter and quickly flee, to the monsoon wind that flakes the sapphire at the city dykes. In the interim, the poem moves from mead and marsh to hot sulphur dreams, with those odd mammoth turtles presented as erotic beings whose longings or fulfillment rip them asunder in a sulphuric dreamy kind of hell. The poem remembers something that to the poet is perhaps equally threatening, the pond’s singing willow rim, the pond he entered once and fled, coming later upon the city whose scalding unguents are spread among smoking darts while a monsoon works against the gates. We are left with the sense of everything about to be sprung open, with the possibility of moving through this final gateway from one stage of life to another. It is a plot with words but without firm details, a magical movement from ponds and lakes through signifiers of hell to sea and hurricane. And we can find, if we wish, others Melvillean antecedents for the imagery. The turtles, for example, parallel the tortoises seen in Melville’s The Piazza Tales, in the sketches called “The Encantadas”:
Meeting with no such hinderance as their companion did, the other tortoises merely fell foul of small stumbling-blocks—buckets, blocks, and coils of rigging—and at times in the act of crawling over them would slip with an astounding rattle to the deck. Listening to these draggings and concussions, I thought me of the haunt from which they came; an isle full of metallic ravines and gulches, sunk bottomlessly into the hearts of splintered mountains, and covered for many miles with inextricable thickets. I then pictured these three straight-forward monsters, century after century, writhing through the shades, grim as blacksmiths; crawling so slowly and ponderously, that not only did toad-stools and all fungus things grow beneath their feet, but a sooty moss sprouted upon their backs. With them I lost myself in volcanic mazes; brushed away endless boughs of rotting thickets; till finally in a dream I found myself sitting crosslegged upon the foremost, a Brahmin similarly mounted upon either side, forming a tripod of foreheads which upheld the universal cope.
And the “black gorge” of the poem may similarly have a source in another part of Melville, Chapter 98 of Moby Dick, “The Try-Works,” where the placement of the “blackest gorges” and of a Catskill eagle that can dive down and soar out of them may function as a sort of background music to that part of the poem, those things that the poet says he is willing to give up in barter:
…There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
Others see different and differently complete narratives in the poem. Harold Bloom, in a brilliant reading, sees the poem as wholly erotic, and it may be, though despite his efforts I confess to having a hard time constructing an erotic plot from the text on the page. And John T. Irwin, in his very engaged reading of the poem in Hart Crane’s Poetry: “Appollinaire lived in Paris, I live in Cleveland, Ohio” (Johns Hopkins University Press) suggests that the poem is about the growth of the poet’s soul, a transit from adolescence to maturity as a poet, “from the river constrained within its banks down to the freedom of the open sea.” To make his case, he brings in an image-dictionary’s worth of backup, seeing in Crane as poet-speaker an Orpheus just prior to being torn apart by the Dionysian women. It’s a rich and fascinating reading. In yet another reading of the poem, Laurence Lieberman says in his essay, “Hart Crane’s Monsoon: A Reading of While Buildings,” (American Poetry Review, March/April 2010) that the poem is a confrontation with a type of memory, and is a “self-elegy” whose images carry a weight and density that “we recognize as kindred to images we’ve all encountered in our rare life-changing dreams.” I like this characterization of the images a lot, though I am not sure it tells us anything useful to help in reading the poem. Happily, Lieberman continues, echoing Bloom perhaps: “I believe that Crane has adapted to the structure of his compact lyric an experimental scenic art that approximates—by a curious mimicry—the form of Moby Dick. ‘Repose of Rivers’ is an improbable small-scale replica of the novel’s allegorical format. No other poem of Crane’s simulates the Melvillean structure in quite the same way.” In this reading, each of the four key stanzas are like chapters in the novel, “tackling a palpably delineated segment of extrovert reality—scenic, pictorial, as in a slide show drawn from the poet’s life story.” The pictures magically summon up the flutterings of the other world that lurk behind their silhouettes; “they function more as emblems, and they finally coalesce into an allegorical map of the author’s inner life. Those images come to strike us as final, absolutes, total in their spiritual knowing. Their gnosis… Unchallengeable, like images that leap before us in dreams, they evoke a bedrock reality masked by the world of the senses.” The thing to take out of this part of the discussion is not only how much the poem is able to give itself over to many different readings, but how much we as readers are almost impelled too try to create that plot, to find that hidden narrative. The poem is controlled, intense, private—and also inviting and open. And also, utterly brilliant.
I have written elsewhere of the cost to the poet for making poems like this. I return to Cowley’s book for an assessment of the cost to Crane of his entry into the ecstatic moments that created these visionary poems from White Buildings and others in The Bridge. Crane sought high moments of derangement of the senses, through alcohol, in pursuit of his visions. Cowley says:
Hart drank to write: he drank to invoke the visions that his poems are intended to convey. But the recipe could be followed for a few years at the most, and it was completely effective only for two periods of about a month each, in 1926 and 1927, when working at top speed he finished most of the poems included in The Bridge. After that more and more alcohol was needed, so much of it that when the visions came he was incapable of putting them on paper. He drank in Village speakeasies and Brooklyn waterfront dives; he insulted everyone within hearing or shouted that he was Christopher Marlowe; then waking after a night spent with a drunken sailor, he drank again to forget his sense of guilt. He really forgot it, for the moment. By the following afternoon all the outrageous things he had done at night became merely funny, became an epic misadventure to be embroidered—“ And then I began throwing furniture out the window,” he would say with an enormous chuckle. Everybody would laugh and Hart would pound the table, calling for another bottle of wine. At a certain stage in drunkenness he gave himself and others the illusion of completely painless brilliance; words poured out of him, puns, metaphors, epigrams, visions; but soon the high spirits would be mingled with obsessions—“ See that man staring at us, I think he’s a detective”— and then the violence would start all over again, to be followed next day by the repentance
It is a sad ending, a wounding vignette about a poet with such great talent and powers, and such great promise. We can see the end in such stories: deracination, despair, eventual suicide. His was an emotionally compromised life from the start, and it is a miracle that he survived at all that battleground of love and hatred where his badly matched narcissistic parents, that neurotic mother and uncomprehending businessman father, fought to alienate their son from each other. He lived hard, as hard as he had to, and he made bad choices, and in spite of all he became a great poet, who left behind an incredible record of his brilliant engagement with the sublime; it was an engagement that cost him everything. Others have debated whether the cost in life is worth the product in art, but I think that the terms of such debates are red herrings, and truly meaningless. Poets of this caliber and vision really have no choice. It is what they do. They are poets. Their lives are constructed around their poetry, and it is what gives them the value that they live by, and determines their relationship to the world.