Some Words of Hart Crane


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).  

By Source, Fair use,

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.  

Hart Crane

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.”  

Exile’s Return

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:  


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 
Asunder … 

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.  


Poetry and the Lion’s Mane

By Stephen Kuusisto, co-editor Nine Mile Magazine


Why do lions–male lions–have manes? “Protects them in fights,” some say, but lions mostly attack each other at the hips which is a fact like candy or coconuts as Anselm Hollo once said though he wasn’t talking about lions. A contrary view: the mane advertises a lion’s fitness like a peacock’s tail, vanity in tooth and claw. A Pride of lions with its boys up front is nothing more than a roving band of social Darwinists. Those big cat boys should have their manes around their hindquarters like tawny tutus. Nature flubbed her leonine mane placement.

Nature flubs a great deal. Poetry engages with the flaws. A better way to say it is poetry “is” the flaws. Poetry can and will concern itself with imperfections. Poems that matter, the ones that feel necessary have to do with that lion whose mane is losing hair. It never grew back properly after a fight. Poems that matter suggest the mane is less important than a consideration of prey for it’s all appetite and surrender “out there” and not a hair salon.

Consider this excellent poem “In Praise of Prey” by Leslie McGrath which I’ll quote in its entirety:


The rhythm of predation is a sine wave.

Between predator and prey it winds


like a whip-crack in slow motion.

The time has come to praise the prey


who fill the guts of the never-satisfied

for whom winning is all, and nothing.


Praise the squeak and the telling tremble.

Praise their begging and their shame.


Praise their jugular fullness, the sweet red pulse

the ever-open spigot of their submission.


Let go the lamentations. Let go the pity.


All hail the awkward and the addlebrained

the boneheaded, the broken-down, the bonkers.


All hail the cracked and the cuckoo

the lame, the lunatic, and the losers.


Here’s to the nutjobs, the spastic

the peculiar and the outcasts.


For them, the wedgie and the booby prize

the tar, the feathers and the narrow rail.


Tip your jaw and let praise fall for prey.

History is written on the vellum of their bellies.



Now I’m more than a little uncomfortable with McGrath’s easy move from the locus of creatures being eaten to disability figuration and I know I’m meant to be discomfited. I know I can’t praise brutality but the poem makes me look up from the ghastly entrails of nature and slick acculturation, makes me reach for my chin to touch the blood. I’m still whispering, “I haven’t let go of my pity”–“don’t you see? I didn’t sign on yet?” I want very much to write in the margins “remember the T4 Project? Hitler rounded up and exterminated the disabled before he turned his full attention to the Holocaust.”  Of course I want to write this. In fact, forget about marginalia–one thinks of Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”–hell I want to call Leslie on the telephone! Want to shout: “We cripples? We’ve had enough booby prizes, lobotomies, incarcerations…I’m not going to tip my jaw. I won’t praise my reconfiguration as “the eaten” and you can’t make me!

But Leslie McGrath, poet, isn’t asking me to offer my head on the alter of abjections. Poetry differs from eugenics because it’s necessarily composed of ironies, dramatic and comic, and the best poets engage, widen, turn these ironies (which are possible only because of literacy, because we know a self-to-self dichotomy of consciousness made possible by reading) into discomfiture. One of the finest examples of this occurs in Cesar Vallejo’s famous poem “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone” translated here by Robert Bly: 



I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.


It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on

wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself

with all the road ahead of me, alone.


César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him

although he never does anything to them;

they beat him hard with a stick and hard also


with a rope. These are the witnesses:

the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,

the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .




Safe to say the lion’s mane isn’t poetry, nor the peacock’s tail, nor the appetites of merely living. Safer to say you’re broken into life, art is difficult, and the witnesses will be merely the insentient and inconsequential days unless one knows what to do with the solitude, the rain, and the roads…












Sand in the Oyster: Auden, Eliot, & the Making of a Poem by Dylan Thomas


Let’s do a thought experiment.  Here’s the scene:  It’s 1934, a decade less and less dominated by the powerful poetic voices of the  near-50ish T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, those enfant arbiters who initiated the modernist movement in the Anni Mirabiles years of a decade ago, and more and more by the 20-something new generation of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other politically committed intellectuals of their circle.  W.B. Yeats, the 1923 Nobel Prize winner, is at age 69 an honored but increasingly distant master. Serious readers of poetry (yourself in this experiment) follow both these Modernist original and new generation writers, but their tastes are still satisfiable by the traditional formalist modes they grew up with.  These trends, old and new, show in the major published work of this year, which includes Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Wine From These Grapes and James Agee’s Permit Me Voyage, but also Auden’s Poems (2nd edition: 1933 in Britain, 1934 in the USA), and Spender’s Vienna.  The presence of the elders shows in William Carlos Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931, and in the unchecked and random dynamism of Ezra Pound, who publishes Homage to Sextus Propertius, and ABC of Reading, but also the often-unhealthily obsessive Eleven new Cantos: XXXI–XLI, the subjects of which include Jefferson, Adams, and other American founders, the American banking system and coinage, and various unpleasant anti-semite references; in a few years his political apocalyptic will overtake his poetry, and he will envision himself as a political theorist and world savior.  He is moving toward crackpot status, already almost but not quite dismissible.

15480817159_526de92e3c_zAnd now imagine yourself in this year of conflicted trends, buying this little 36-page book titled 18 Poems by a 20-year old Welsh poet who won a contest sponsored by The Sunday Referee newspaper. It comes in a white cover, its title in big san serif type, with the poet’s name  just below it.  Perhaps you want to know more about the poet, but at the back of the book is the postscript, “This book, the second volume of the Sunday Referee Poets series, is unaccompanied by either portrait or preface, at the author’s request.”  In other words, all you have is the book of poems, no guideposts, no blurbs from well-known poets and critics attesting to its quality, no smiling hopeful poetic face set there to convince you of the sincerity and excellence of the soul-baring venture contained within the pages.  Message:  You are on your own.  No teachers, no guides, no gurus.  You read the first stanza of the first section of the first poem:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.  

And you think:  What is this?  Who writes like this? No one, is the answer, and no, don’t bother looking around because there is no one to tell you what this is, and there is no possible appeal to authority or precedent, because nothing like this is being published even in this poetically varied year of 1934, or 15664787091_32f69fffe1_zfor that matter in any other year in your reading experience.  Even today, 80 years on, the words of this stanza strike a reader as new, different, with images that are collage-strange, that come into these six lines from so many directions, with no direction about the psychic or geographic place or about the speaker—and so no answers to the questions, who are these boys who are referenced as the subject of the poem? what are “gold tithings”? who is speaking and what is seen?  For that matter, although so many of these words are visual nouns and adjectives—“gold,” “apples,” “soil,” “girls,” “frozen,” etc.—can they actually be said to describe a scene?  Can we visualize it?  Is it even visualizable?  There are hints that something is there, a scene, or at least, that there should be a scene, and there is a tone that suggests we should be able to see it, but… what is it?

Even in this first reading we can sense tremendous force, an intense compression of the lines, drawing in many themes and setting them off against each other, although we may still  wonder about what action is being described.  What does it mean, after all, to say that someone lays “the gold tithings barren”?  And in what sense are these boys “ruined”?  The verbiage seems to suggest that the sighting happens in present tense, that they are ruined now, and yet there are ambiguities in the phraseology:  does the speaker mean that they are ruined later as they age, or that they are ruined later in some way, that is, that they are still young and still boys of summer, but ruined ones?  As we move through the poem from unsettling image to image, from winter floods and frozen loves and girls who are fetched (different than the frozen loves?) we come to the final line about “cargoed apples,” which we can sort of understand if we take it literally, as this is the Depression, and crops were sometimes dumped to insure higher prices for the remainder at market; but then, what does the Depression crop-dumping have to do with girls and tides and gold tithings?  Nice as those auditory assonances may be (tides and tithings, girls and gold, etc.), do they tell us anything?  Move us somewhere?

The questions pile up as we notice something else, how much at the level of the images and the words is concatenated in these few first lines:  heat and cold, wet and dry, love and sterility, games (apple-bobbing, “fetching”) and death, creation and destruction.  This is not a full encyclopedic run of all available poetic and thematic possibilities, but it is certainly broader than most of what we encounter in a single stanza in a single poem.  We notice too that these lines scan like older poetry but read like new poetry, even if like poetry bitten by madness (to play a variation on Jacques Maritain’s wonderful “Art bitten by Poetry longs to be freed from Reason”).  These lines are strange, even unsettling, but our sense of confusion may be allayed somewhat by the certainty of the tone, the definitive rhetoric of the stanza that says that this is exactly what the poet means, that he is not confused, that he knows what he is saying to us, and he means to say it.  And so we think, there is sense here, there must be, the poet seems to insist on it, and so we just have to find it, to open ourselves to it to grasp it.  But it is strange!  There is no father to this, no predecessor.  Seamus Heaney has said that “Others may have written like Thomas, but it was never vice-versa.”  I would amend the first part of his statement only to say that others have tried to write like Thomas, but I know of no one who succeeded past a few lines or parts of a poem or two.

15481515017_99a1469ea1_zIt should not be surprising that none of this unavoidable perception of difference and obscurity would help sell the book.  Quite the opposite:  It took two years for that first edition of five hundred copies to sell out, making it no success, but in fairness, not a total failure either, at least in terms of poetry book sales.  Perhaps the publishers expected some such outcome, for they bound the book prudently, in two sets of 250 each, not binding the second until the first had sold out.  The good news for the poet was that the book was widely reviewed, and noticed by older established poets and critics, including T.S. Eliot, and by some of the prominent younger ones, like Stephen Spender.  Today, of course, the book is famous, a collector’s item.  You can buy a good first edition for around $900 (or $500 of you ca be content with the second binding), and you can buy an original from the second printing by its second publisher, the Fortune Press (London, 1942) for around $200.

I’ve been reading through 18 Poems, trying to recover my initial experience at encountering these poems some decades ago, and finding it surprisingly not hard at all.  When you enter their world, their power shows immediately, even aggressively:  They are meant to be experienced that way.  From the first line you read you are taken in and you live inside the poem as if there was no other world, and no other words or language but these on the page before you, for nothing else is possible in the moment of your reading.  Stepping away, putting down the book, it comes to you how stunning it is that a 20-year old could have written so many of what we now regard as masterpieces:  “I see the boys of summer,” “The force that through the green fuse,” “Before I knocked” (of which Heaney has said it “breaks the print barrier”), “Light breaks where no sun shines,” and many others.  They share an extraordinary quality, presenting themselves as sui generis, and yet also as familiar and inevitable.  The words, that is, feel inevitable, as if they have been there a long time, and yet we are conscious at the same time of how new they are, coming to us this way.  Where does this come from?  How do poems like this even get to the page?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the mysterious process of how poems come into being, and  want to talk in this essay about what I think is part of that process, the way that frictional elements can sometimes help a poem along—that is, items that are not the source of the poem or of the poetry, but are the tiny pieces, some words, or a scene, the somethings, that help in its development, which for one reason or another lodge in the imagination and work there like the bit of sand in an oyster that helps produce the pearl.  And there is also related item, a way of thinking about or validating the mode and construction of the created object, that gives license to how the thing is conceived and put together, an environmental piece that helps define and protect the final output.

Both of these pieces lurk behind and around this first poem in the book, and indeed around the book as a whole.  One of them is from W.H. Auden, and one from T.S. Eliot.  One Thomas embraced and used to strengthen and articulate his approach to his poetry, giving it a safe space in which to develop and mature; and one he also used but resisted, derogated, and denied, even as he admitted to its importance, almost as if he resented its influence.  The Eliot contribution to Thomas came in his criticism, in the early 1930’s books Selected Essays and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. These were so helpful to Thomas that he cited passages from them often in letters and interviews as a justification and philosophical underpinning to his methods.  They validated and created the environment in which his poems could thrive, and he recognized that and was grateful for it, for he needed it.  But with Auden he had a different and deeply conflicted relationship.  Auden’s voice, structure, and poetic is influential in this first poem and throughout the book.  Thomas tried in various ways to differentiate himself from the other poet, and to deny his influence, and I will show some ways in which he tried to do this.

(Eliot and Auden are not the only influences to be seen in these poems.  Although I don’t discuss it in this essay, there is also the significant influence of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, which can be seen in the scansions and rhythms of the lines, and sometimes more:  Consider a possible ancestry of “If I were ticked by the rub of love” as being Hamlet’s “Ay, there’s the rub” from the great “To be or not to be” soliloquy.)

I want to be clear about this.  These other items and authors do not create the poems, and they are not the motive or the force that makes the poem in the end definitive for its author and for us; and there is in any case no reason for them to be acknowledged, either in the poem or anywhere else, after the poem is completed.  Think of their relationship to the poem, if you will, as similar to that of the angel that appeared to Caedmon and ordered him to sing the creation of the world; after which, following the command, Caedmon sang of the glory of the world, but not of the extraordinary appearance of the angel, whose holy instigating presence we know of only because Bede, the great historian and Doctor of the Church, told us so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.


Alfred Janes - Dylan ThomasIt may be helpful here, before we get to the analysis, to remind ourselves of Thomas’ bona fides with respect to the language of poems in general, and then of his language as he saw it in relation to other writers.  For he was serious about his language and his choices, and the poems were not accidental in their parts.  Everything—every image, word, phrase, and syntactical connective—was meant.  Here is an example from a letter to Vernon Watkins, in which he speaks about the necessary language of poetry.  Thomas was 23 at the time of this letter, three years older than when he wrote the “boys of summer” poem.  He was critiquing a poem Watkins had sent him for comments:

All the words [in Watkins’ poem] are lovely but they seem so chosen, not struck out. I can see the sensitive picking of words, but not the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down…They [the words] seem, as indeed the whole poem seems, to come out of the nostalgia of literature…A motive has been rarefied; it should be made common. I don’t ask you for vulgarity, though I miss it; I think I ask you for a little creative destruction, destructive creation.

I am taken by his phrase about the words needing to seem a “strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down.”  This is as good a description of the authority that a poem’s truth can command as I know, written by someone who clearly understands what that is and why it is important, and why it must always stand in opposition to the “still life or an experience put down.”  Thomas spent many hours working in the service of this vision of truth in poetry, seeking to find it and to make his poems different than those of others writing at the time; his letters are full of references to the insufficiency of the 30’s poems he read, and contain sharp asides on Auden, Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and others.  He said, for example, in a 1934 letter to Glyn Jones that “I like to read good propaganda, but the most recent poems of Auden and Day-Lewis seem to me neither good poetry nor propaganda.  A good propagandist needs very little intellectual appeal; and the emotional appeal in Auden wouldn’t raise the corresponding emotion in a tick.”  This is judgment functioning as differentiation, a way of creating a boundary between what he was doing and what they were doing.  Of Spender he wrote, “I find his communism unreal; before a poet can get into contact with society, he must, surely, be able to get into contact with himself, and Spender has only tickled his outside with a feather.”  Again, the judgment, if sincere, can be made only by one who has in fact been in contact with himself; for if this is not a criteria yoked to one’s own aesthetic, then it is fatuous and narcissistically self-indulgent. To say it to another who knows you is to invite rebuke and embarrassment. It may also be worth noting how odd it is to suggest that the reality of communism is only possible to a poet who is truly in contact with himself; as judgment, this overwhelms its occasion.

But Auden, it was Auden he came back to, to both praise and criticize, for Auden was the big one, the one he could measure himself against, the one he could learn from, the one he never wanted to be compared to.  He had to be different.  His vision was different, and he was charting a new way.  And for all his protestations and critiques of Auden, Thomas was influenced by him in ways which he knew and understood and so perhaps thought he must fight against. His literary relationship to the other poet was problematical, even passive-aggressive, at the same time deeply admiring and carefully distant.  You can see it in his piece in  the 1937 New Verse magazine’s salute to the poet: “I sometimes think of Mr. Auden’s poetry as a hygiene, a knowledge and practice, based on a brilliantly prejudiced analysis of contemporary disorders, relating to the preservation and promotion of health, a sanitary science and a flusher of melancholies. I sometimes think of his poetry as a great war, admire intensely the mature, religious, and logical fighter, and deprecate the boy bushranger.”  This is praising, somewhat, but also catty, something one might say of a wartime environmental engineer given to writing with a florid streak who keeps a very neat office.  He says nicer things about Auden in the following paragraph, that he is “wide and deep,” is “potentially productive of greatness” (note that “potentially”!) and that “He makes Mr. Yeats isolation guilty as a trance,” a nice two-fer of a joke.  And then he ends his short piece by congratulating Auden on his 70th birthday—another joke:  Auden at the time was 30 years old.  The young dog keeps jumping forth uninhibited from the 20-something poet and doing something not quite respectable right there in the plain sight of God and man and everyone.

There is one more bit of information that may be useful to know about Thomas’ method of writing.  It also shows his faith in Eliot, for he uses him as an external authority in an appeal to judgment.  In 1933 he wrote to ask Eliot to “corroborate or contradict” a criticism that his poems were products of automatic writing, a charge that had been leveled by Richard Rees.  He says in his cover letter that the “fluency complained of is the result of extraordinary hard work, and, in my opinion, the absence of ‘knotty or bony passages’ is again the result of much energetic labour… and many painful hours spent over the smoothing and removing of the creakiness of conflict.”  Note the distinction here:  it is not the conflict that is being removed by constant work and refinement, only its creakiness.  The high rhetoric of his syntax holds together the otherwise disjunct and warring images and words.  The technique is collage, the labor is to make it all seem both new and inevitable, or in Thomas’ words, “the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event.”


And now, with that mess of conflicting emotions and scenery and explanation as backdrop, it is time to jump into it:  For the first line of “I see the boys of summer in their ruin”—the first line of the first poem of this, his first book—is more or less a mash-up of a line in Auden’s “Consider this and in our time,” from his Poems (published in 1930 with a second revised edition in 1933).  Here is the final stanza, that contains the “ruined boys” line:

Financier, leaving your little room
Where the money is made but not spent,
You’ll need your typist and your boy no more;
The game is up for you and for the others,
Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns
Of College Quad or Cathedral Close,
Who are born nurses, who live in shorts
Sleeping with people and playing fives.
Seekers after happiness, all who follow
The convolutions of your simple wish,
It is later than you think; nearer that day
Far other than that distant afternoon
Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet
They gave the prizes to the ruined boys.
You cannot be away, then, no
Not though you pack to leave within an hour,
Escaping humming down arterial roads:
The date was yours; the prey to fugues,
Irregular breathing and alternate ascendancies
After some haunted migratory years
To disintegrate on an instant in the explosion of mania
Or lapse for ever into a classic fatigue. 

At first glance, this seems an odd place to find inspiration.  Written in 1930, the poem is oddly dull for the Auden of these years, and to me reads as mechanical, even lusterless.  Auden undertakes this kind of apocalyptic and cynically urban posture so much better in so many of his other poems that this seems not only unfulfilled but unfinished, as everything here, even the cliches, seem weary and not so much placed as dropped here by someone passing by:  “where the money is made but not spent,” “the game is up,” “it is later than you think.”  And the absurdist caricatures of people who “pace in slippers on the lawns,” who are “prey to fugues, / Irregular breathing and alternate ascendancies,” and so forth, seem set here from some other place, a better poem perhaps, or from discarded lines from some other writing.  I can’t imagine that Thomas, so hungry for excellence and so quick to judge his contemporaries, found much to admire in the poem as a whole.  Auden must have agreed, as much of the poem was rewritten for its appearance in his Collected Poems (Vintage, 1991), dropping the financier and the slippers on the lawn and other distracting elements altogether.

And yet, something in this first version caught something in Thomas’ imagination, perhaps the sense in the lines of a remembered generation that judges the present waste of the financier’s world, or perhaps just the phrase.  Something clicked, in any dylan-thomas-portrait-of-welsh-poet-as-young-man-27-october-1914-9-erhc14case, about a world in which they gave “prizes to the ruined boys.”  It may be that a partially realized poem is more inviting to the hungrily creative poet than the completely realized one; one wanders through what might have been without being required to admit to full accomplishment, with the prohibitions to sharing that a finished object would bring.  From this partially realized effort, in any case, license was loosely taken to move from the “prizes to the ruined boys” to “the summer boys in their ruin,”  which may not be so great a psychic distance.  And perhaps there was something else creatively appealing in Auden’s theme of the ruin of the financier and his world, that made him think about what the prize-winning ruined boy became, or to wonder what ruined the boy to begin with.  Possibly it was this sense of a lost world in the Auden poem taken into his own language and vision that prompted the concluding lines of the poem’s first section:

I see that from these boys shall men of nothing
Stature by seedy shifting,
Or lame the air with leaping from its heats;
There from their hearts the dogdayed pulse
Of love and light bursts in their throats.
O see the pulse of summer in the ice.

There are other echoes from Auden in this poem and in this book.  Some have suggested, for example, that the line in the first stanza about cargoes apples may reflect, in addition to market practices, the influence of Auden’s line, “Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,” from the villanelle “Paysage Moralisé.” There may also be learning structural techniques from poems such as “It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens,” or “The Witnesses.”  For our purposes it is enough to say from the evidence that Thomas read Auden’s poems thoroughly and in depth, and found in one of them a line that created a response or variation—created something that was transubstantiated by the poetic imagination to the new thing.

Now I need to add this cautionary note:  That this is poetry, and involves people, and so there is no one-to-one correspondence, no argument being made that Auden’s dross became Thomas’ gold.  We are all of us more complex than that, and God knows, poetry is more complex.  Nor is this some kind of argument about Bloomian “influence,” or outright theft or even a more subtle borrowing; Auden’s ruined boys do not “become” Thomas’ “boys of summer.”  Rather the imagination of the poet encountered something that set it working on this image of ruined boys and this context or narrative of the poem until it became something else in this new poem.  To return to an earlier image I used to describe this process, the Auden line is the grain of sand that becomes the line of poetry that launches in the first line of this other poem.


As for structure and aesthetic of this and other Thomas poems, I have said that Thomas used T.S. Eliot in defining and validating his approach to poetry.  Consider these two examples from Eliot, both from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism:

The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking for some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him:  much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.  This is a normal situation of which I approve…  

What I call the “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end.  It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.  

And this from Thomas, in a 1934 letter to Glyn Jones:

Remember Eliot:  “The chief use of ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.”  And again:  “Some poets, asking that there are others minds like their own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity though its elimination’….

It is interesting that these are the parts of Eliot’s writings that Thomas chooses to retain and quote to others.  I believe, as explained above, that he read deeply in Eliot and used him to justify and validate his method, that he needed Eliot because of the way he works, from the words up to the image and then to the poem as a whole:  He works, that is, at the level of the poetry, not that of the narrative or of the poem.  This methodology allows him to bind the pieces of his poem together at the syntactic or rhetorical level, finding and sometimes creating the hidden connections between the images and the lines that will exist once stated and brought into the light.  The poem is thus assembled piece by piece, collage-fashion.  Narrative, he says in “Replies to an Enquiry” (In Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1968), is essential:

Much of the flat, abstract poetry of the present has no narrative movement, no movement at all, and is consequently dead. There must be a progressive line, or theme, of movement in every poem. The more subjective a poem, the clearer the narrative line. Narrative, in its widest sense, satisfies what Eliot, talking of “meaning,” calls “one habit of the reader.” Let the narrative take that one logical habit of the reader along with its movement, and the essence of the poem will do its work on him. 

Note the distinction:  Narrative is the instrument that works upon the reader while the “essence of the poem” does its work on him, suggesting that narrative is not the essence.  That essence is the thing that Thomas learned from or had confirmed by Eliot, and which is described as the “auditory imagination” in the quote above.  The phrase is from Eliot’s essay about Matthew Arnold.  Eliot admired Arnold’s The Study of Poetry, but demurred from the other’s description of the “life” of a poem.  He thought that it did not go deep enough, an infirmity, as he saw it, so serious as to render judgment on the great Victorian:  “He had no real serenity, only an implacable demeanor.”  This is a devastating judgment by itself, but Eliot went further, saying that he sensed a lack of confidence and conviction in Arnold, tied to this imperfect sense of the life of a poem.  You can see why Thomas would have found the quote and the sense of poetry it offered so appealing, to say nothing of the judgment in those lines.


A quick note on the structure of the poem.  It is in three parts.  The first part is a speaker talking about the boys of summer, which ends with ice.  In the second section the boys speak, who “ring the stars,” and who after experience and thoughts of love and a description of acts of masturbation, find ability to “hold up the noisy sea and drop her birds,” which is an image of birth, and who therefore view themselves as “poles of promise.”  The exuberance of the imagery in this section almost offsets the thematic images of sterility.  The final section is just one stanza, a dialogue of alternating lines that calls out the lie of all the rest pf what has gone before in two devastating lines:  “I am the man your father was. / We are the sons of flint and pitch.”

Each section is complex and rich with image and cross-talk.  Each stanza and each section is held together by various devices.  Within the stanzas we find that the lines scan and are bound aurally by half-rhymes and consonant rhymes, by a syntax that almost but never quite coheres in the kind of sentence structures we are used to, but flies off with undefined referents and apposite clauses.  Each section ends with a parallel structure:

O see the pulse of summer in the ice.
O see the poles of promise in the boys.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

Promise joins ruin: The boy is the promise until he becomes the man, at which point destiny limits all choices, and each person enacts the life that has gone before.  This is the point at which the poles of life kiss as they cross.

This is an incredible, masterful, wonderful poem, fun to read at the level of the “auditory imagination,” and even more fun to listen to in readings by Thomas and also, in an amazing reading by Richard Burton.  Each reading tells us something new about the poem.  Each approach releases something else in the magic of this classic poem, and of the poems in this book.  Read them yourself and experience how the power and the magic of these poems remains so fresh and overwhelming, despite many readings.  Something always comes and surprises.


I have several debts to pay for sources and authors who helped me along the way or suggested readings and interpretations for this essay.  They are John Goodby, Under the Spelling Wall (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013); Seamus Heaney, “Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas,” (Salmagundi No. 100, Fall 1993); William York Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1962); New Verse, “Auden Double Number,” November 1937; Adam Kirsch, “Reckless Endangerment The making and unmaking of Dylan Thomas,” The New Yorker, July 5, 2004; Andrew Lycett, Dylan Thomas: A New Life (Overlook, 2003); The Poems of Dylan Thomas, ed. and intro Daniel Jones (New Directions, 1971) and The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas, ed. and intro Ralph Maud (New Directions, 1966).  For quotes from or about Auden, I have used the wonderful The English Auden Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939 ed and intro Edward Mendelson (Faber and Faber, 1977).  The T.S. Eliot quotes are from Selected Essays (Harcourt Brace 1932) and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Faber, 1933).

Trakl’s Helian, An Utterly New Thing

Trakl called “Helian” “the most precious and painful [poem] I have ever written.”  He wrote it between December 1912 and January 1913.  I believe that the poem earned his description by dealing in entirely new ways with related themes that were difficult for him, as they would be for anyone:  the decline of family, and of civilization, and the various fragmented forms of an individual character in this disintegrating and disorienting world.  The poem hints throughout at a broader narrative or broader themes that are not revealed or fully described, and it does so in a compelling train of obsessive images, some angelic,  some chthonic, both necessary.  The powerful imagery makes the poem easy to read, and the several burdens it bears make it harder to analyze; it is clear at the level of those images, but difficult at the level of what we might call classical critical discourse.  The heart understands, as does the spirit; but the mind struggles.  It could not have been an easy poem to write.

In order to make this poem, Trakl developed a new form for his writing, moving even beyond the groundbreaking changes and innovations of “Psalm.” In this new form, there is no plot as such, but there is a narrative which is entirely composed at the level of the images.  He addresses his broad themes of the decline of western civilization in a rich train of images that convey the beauty of disintegration, and parallel to it, describes a family’s loss, as disease, spiritual prostitution, and the ultimate ruin of death.  The theme of the decline of western civilization—a Spenglerian theme, some have called it—shows in such lines as “The ruin of a generation is shattering” or “Evening, & the bells that no longer ring sink down, / The black walls on the town-square fall to ruin, / The dead soldier is calling to a prayer.”  And the generational loss of family as a unit and spiritual force shows in lines like:  “A pale angel, / The son enters the empty house of his fathers.  // The sisters have gone far away to white old men.”  He interweaves another layer into these already complex related themes, with the Christian archetypal imagery of death and resurrection, shown in the way Helian survives bodily decay and leprosy to resurrect at the end of the poem, when “The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.”

I also see something very personal in the poem, though this may be an idiosyncratic reading on my part.  It is in the enactment of the movement of the poet’s mind, which shows in the rapid imagistic movement in the poem, and it is in the several fragmented guises of the protagonist. Trakl talks about this psychic movement and the nature of self in a 1908 letter to his older sister Minna:  “I have experienced, smelled, touched, the most frightening possibilities within myself, have heard the demons howling in my blood, the thousand devices with their spurs which drive the flesh mad.”  Following this he says he has become “all living ear, again listen[ing] to the melodies inside me, and my winged eye again dreams its images, which are more beautiful than all reality.”  [Quoted from a translation by Herbert Lindenberger in Georg Trakl (Twayne Publishers, 1971].  This extreme alternation between the demonic and the angelic is also a characteristic of this poem, and as well of the poems that follow.  I suggest that the exchange between the two precisely enacts on the page an emotional picture of the movement of the poet’s mind, and it creates the dynamic structure of the poem and of poems to follow.  As for the protagonist, he appears in several forms—walking in the sun in the lonely hours of the spirit, the youth who enters the house, and the stranger, the young novice, the mad boy, the “soul [that] looks at itself in the rosy mirror,” and the other figures.  The personality presented does not grow or progress; rather it is discontinuous, shifting, and perhaps, if all these forms are taken together, comprehensive, a hall of mirrors that in all reflects a single person.

It is hard, perhaps, to recover now the shock that readers must have felt at reading “Helian” the first time.  Nothing could have prepared them for this, or for the other major Symbolist German poem written at that time, Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  they would have looked for easy or conventional readings in vain.  Despite its Christian imagery, the poem fits no Christian allegorical interpretation, not is it a poem describing the author’s personal or intimate feelings or experiences.  Its personal motifs are presented in a post-Romantic way, much as in “The Wasteland,” without overt personal reference or as an expression of the writer’s experience.  It is an entirely new thing.  Nothing like it had existed before.  Trakl had brought poetry to a new place with this major poem.




In the lonely hours of the spirit
It is beautiful to walk in the sun
Along the yellow walls of summer.
The footsteps soft in the grass; still
The son of Pan sleeps on in gray marble.

Evenings on the terrace we used to get drunk on brown wine.
The peach has a red glow in the leaves;
Gentle sonata, happy laughter.

The night-quiet is beautiful.
On a dark plain
We meet shepherds & white stars.

When autumn comes
There is a sober clarity in the grove.
We walk along the red walls, calm now,
& our round eyes follow the flights of the birds.
In the evening, white water sinks in the funeral urns.

The sky rests in bare branches.
The peasant carries bread & wine in pure hands
& the fruit ripens peacefully in a sunny room.

How solemn the faces of the beloved dead.
Yet the soul delights in righteous contemplation.


How powerful the silence of the ruined garden,
When the young novice garlands his forehead with brown leaves,
& with his breath drinks in the icy gold.

Hands touch against the age of blue waters
Or on a cold night the white cheeks of the sisters.

The walk past friendly rooms is quiet & harmonious,
Where there is solitude & the rustle of the maple,
Where the thrush, perhaps, still sings.

Man is beautiful, shining in the darkness,
When amazed, he moves his arms & legs,
& his eyes roll silently in their purple caves.

At vespers, the stranger loses his way in the black destruction of November,
Under branches that are rotting, along walls full of leprosy,
Where once the holy brother walked,
Absorbed in the soft string music of his madness.

How lonely the evening wind when it ends.
Slowly dying, the head sinks in the dark of the olive tree.


The ruin of a generation is shattering.
In this hour, the eyes of the one who watches fill
With the gold of his stars.

Evening, & the bells that no longer ring sink down,
The black walls on the town-square fall to ruin,
The dead soldier is calling to a prayer.

A pale angel,
The son enters the empty house of his fathers.

The sisters have gone far away to white old men.
At night the sleeper found them under the pillars in the entrance-hall,
Returned from their sad pilgrimages.

How stiff their hair from filth & worms,
As he stands there with silver feet,
& these dead ones emerge from bare rooms.

You psalms that come in the fiery rain of midnight,
When the servants beat the gentle eyes with brambles,
& the childlike fruits of the elderberry
Bow astonished over the empty grave.

Softly the yellow moons roll
Over the fever-sheets of the youth,
Until even the silence of winter follows him.


A great destiny thinks its way down the Kidron River,
Where the cedar, the gentle creature,
Opens under the blue brows of the father.
At night a shepherd leads his flock across the meadow.
Or there are cries in sleep,
When the bronze angel approaches the man in the grove,
& the saint’s flesh melts away on the fiery grate.

The purple vines climb around huts of mud,
The yellow grain sounds in its sheaves,
There is the humming of bees, the flight of the crane.
At night those who have risen from the dead meet on rocky paths.

The lepers are reflected in the black waters;
Or they open their filthy robes
Crying to the fragrant wind that blows from the rosy hill.

The thin servant-girls grope through the alleyways of night,
To find the shepherd of love.
On Saturdays, gentle singing in the huts.

Let the song also remember the boy,
His madness, & his white brow & his final departure,
The ruined one, who opens his blue eyes.
How sad to meet again like this.


In black rooms, steps of madness,
Shadows of old men under the open door,
As Helian’s soul looks at itself in the rosy mirror
& snow & leprosy sink from his brow.

On the walls the stars are extinguished
& the white figures of the light.

The grave-remnants rise from the carpets,
The silence of decayed crosses on the hill,
The incense sweet in the purple of the night-wind.

You shattered eyes in black mouths,
When the grandson in his gentle night-madness
Thinks of the darker end in solitude,
The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.

Trakl: the Elis Poems

Trakl’s brilliant Elis poems, “To The Boy Elis” and “Elis,” were written between spring, 1913, and early 1914, part of the late flowering that began with the masterpieces “Helian” and “Psalm.”  The Elis figure is literary, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, “The Mines at Falun.”  In that story Elis Frobom is a 17th century Swedish miner who dies in the mines on his wedding day.  His body is recovered fifty years later, still youthful, perfectly preserved.  Seeing the corpse, his now-aged wife embraces him, and his body crumbles to dust.  The story, like the poems, sets up a series of oppositions about youth and age, the passing of time, innocence and experience (see my note below).  Here is the first Elis poem:

To The Boy Elis

When the blackbird calls in the black wood,
Elis, this is your descent.
You drink the coolness of the blue rock-spring.

When your forehead gently bleeds
Give up the ancient legends
& the dark interpretations of the bird’s flight.

But you walk softly into the night,
Where the grapes hang full & purple,
& you move your arms more beautifully in the blue.

The thorn-bush sounds
Where your moonlike eyes are.
How long, Elis, you have been dead.

Your body is a hyacinth,
The monk dips his waxen fingers into it.
Our silence is a black cave,

Sometimes a gentle animal steps out of it
& slowly lowers his heavy lids.
A black dew gathers at your temples,

It is the final gold of the ruined stars.

The striking imagery here is part of the so-called “blue world” that occupied Trakl’s poems in the final 18 months of his life, with related figures and objects drawn from opposing categories of pastoral idyl and demonic disintegration.  We see the idyll images in wood, spring, the gentle animal, the blackbird, the grapes, the blueness.  The demonic shows in the black cave, the black dew, the bleeding forehead, the ruined stars, the effort at prophecy from an interpretation of the bird’s flight, the monk who dips his fingers into the flowering of the dead body.  The sounding of the thorn-bush is an echo of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.  The world, or worlds, conjured by this long-dead Elis are so fragile that at last even the stars are ruined and can only share their final gold.

Blue is an important color or adjective for Trakl.  Some scholars see his “blue world” imagery as an influence from the blue flower of the German poet, author, and philosopher Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, May 2, 1772 – March 25, 1801), one of the early exemplars of German Romanticism.  The blue flower is appears in Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen.  In the book the young Heinrich rejects bourgeois materialism to search for artistic and spiritual fulfillment, symbolized by a perfect blue flower. “It is not treasures that I care for,” Heinrich said to himself, “but I long to see the blue flower. I cannot rid my thoughts of the idea, it haunts me.”  The image became a symbol of the German Romantic movement.

Trakl clearly knew about the blue flower.  He dedicated one of his poems to Novalis, and in an early draft mentioned the blue flower. But his adoption of the blue imagery is not slavish, and the images and landscapes he describes in these final poems are variable, even provisional.  The blue as he uses it, for example, is a dual symbol, invoking the color of the world before dawn and at evening, in other words it is the blue of beginnings and endings.

The narrative os this poem moves from life to death:  from “you move your arms more beautifully in the blue” to “How long, Elis, you have been dead,” from grapes to black dew, from the thorn-bush with its suggestions of the divine to the animal that lowers its heavy lids, from the call of the blackbird to the ruined stars. It is a narrative told in images not actions, a gradual passing of life and innocence to death and ruin.  It is easy to get carried away by the beauty of the images and lose the narrative thread that pitches us to the loss of life and beauty.  Not so with the second Elis poem, which ends in nothingness, the wind’s lonely desolation:


How perfect the stillness of this golden day.
Under the ancient oaks
You, Elis, appear in perfect repose with your round eyes.

Their blueness that mirrors the sleep of lovers.
On your mouth
Their rosy love-sighs were silenced.

Evening & the fisherman pulled in the heavy nets.
The good shepherd
Leads his herd along the forest’s edge.
How righteous your days, Elis.

The blue stillness
Of olive-trees sinks softly along bare walls,
Gently the mysterious song of the old man dies away.

The golden boat
That is your heart, Elis, trembles in a lonely heaven.

The bells sound softly in Elis’ breast
In the evening,
When his head sinks into the black cushion.

The blue deer
Bleeds gently in the thorn‑bush.

A brown tree stands alone there, dead;
The blue fruits fell from it.

Signs & stars
Disappear softly into the night‑pond.

It is winter behind the hill.

At night
Blue doves drink the icy sweat
That falls from Elis’ crystal brow.

God’s lonely wind sounds endlessly along black walls.

As in the first Elis poem, this one includes a direct address, speaking to an Elis who appears in perfect repose in the perfect stillness of this golden day.  That this is reminiscent of the first Elis poem is no surprise:  Apparently the two began as a single poem, but then at some point Trakl realized that the sections were pulling apart, and separated them.

But unlike “To The Boy Elis,” this poem brings with it a large range of associations, many traced by critics, so much so that one critic called it “almost a pastiche”:  for example, the images of the fisherman and the shepherd are drawn from the Gospel of John, the moon as a golden boat in the sky is from Neitzche’s Also Sprak Zarathustra, the image of Elis sinking his head on the black cushion is from Hoffman’s “Mines of Falun” and the old man’s song from Hofmannsthal’s version of the same tale, the icy sweat and God’s wind from a translation of Rimbaud into German by KL Ammer, and the whole image structure with its opposed visions of life from a poem by Holderlin, “Halfte des Lebens” (“Middle of Life”).  This is wonderful critical work, though it doesn’t do much to explain the large mysterious power of the poem for readers unaware of these sources.

My own sense is that the power of the poem has to do with its grasp and description of archetypal images and transitions.  The poem opens in an Eden, a place of perfect silence and perfect days, and slowly, over its 29 lines, moves us to the loss of innocence and the final vision of desolation—God’s lonely wind sounding endlessly on black walls.  Elis when we first meet him in this version is a figure of love, like Cupid, with blue eyes that mirror the sleep of lovers and a mouth where rosy love-sighs are silenced by (I assume) kisses.  In the righteousness of his days he sees the fisherman pull in his nets and the shepherd lead his herd along the forest’s edge.  Beautiful pastoral images.  But night comes then, ending the perfect day, and Elis’ heart trembles in a lonely heaven.  The world was beautiful, but now Elis is separated from it, in a lonely heaven, not part of this anymore.  Innocence and beauty and perfection are lost.

The second part of the poem describes this loneliness and loss:  the head on black cushions, meaning that he is dead, and the blue deer that is dead, and the brown tree that is dead, the night pond that absorbs the light from the skies, and the new season, winter, come behind the hill.  The world is turned not to the demonic but to death, the absence of life.  The final image is of the wind from God blowing over a lifeless place.  It is a thoroughly beautiful and completely depressing poem.

My sense is that in these archetypes and images, the poem continues to open out, to expand its range of —”meanings” is too strong a word—its allusions.  Many tales and interpretations could come from this sequence of words and images:  for example, the poem could be about aging, the process of moving from the world of innocence and youth to age and death, the loss of the ripe world to the world of winter and decomposition, even, some readers have suggested, a kind of mythopoeic history of the world.  Whatever it suggests, and however you read it, it is an extremely powerful and allusive poem, whose meanings continue to broaden out long after you have finished your reading.


The story of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Mines of Falun.”  I am grateful to notes on this from Kyle Marshall Bigbee, at Cultural Vivisection blog for detail about the story of Elis Fröbom, who had wanted to make money to support his family.  The last of the family has died off.  An old miner appears and talks to him about the glories of mining, saying that there awaits an underground world of wealth and stone. Elis dreams of a crystal world and a Queen to whom promises himself.  The next day he heads off for the mines, but instead of finding something wonderful he sees an abyss of slag and  burned-out ores, and sulfuric gases.  He wants to leave but then meets some of the miners, and is so impressed that he announces his intention to become a miner. He befriends the chief official, Pehrson Dahlsjö, and falls in love with his daughter, Ulla. One day the older miner shows up again, and mocks him for his love for Ulla and his lack of commitment to the underground world before scrambling away. The old miners turns out to be Torbern, a legendary miner from more than a hundred years before, who was devoted to the earth and who disappeared in a cave-in caused by the greedy over-extension of other miners.  Ulla agrees to marry him, but Torbern continues to appear, quarreling with Elis over his infidelity to the Queen underground. On the day he is to marry Ulla he decides to quickly go underground looking for “the cherry red sparkling almadine … on which is inscribed the chart of our life. You must receive it from me as a wedding present.” But while everyone is preparing for the wedding a cave-in destroys the excavation. Fifty years later, miners working at the site uncover the perfectly preserved corpse of a youth. Just then an old woman—Ulla—arrives and explains that this is Elis, and that she heard fifty years ago from Torbern that she would see him once again. She hugs his body, which crumbles to dust just as she expires.


Trakl: The Dark Paths Of Men Are Strange

Trakl’s four mature prose poems written after 1913 all use the new style begun in “Psalm” and “Helian.”  All are strange and mysterious, fragmentary narratives that hint at a greater story lurking just beyond what we can easily see.  As with all things that hint of narrative, once we are swept up in it, once we engage, we take overt from what the poem has given us and create the sense of completeness ourselves—it’s something we insist on mentally, a sense of sequence and cohesion, moreso perhaps in prose than poetry.

That sense of cohesion is a necessary element given the length and speed of development of these prose poems.  Absent the sense of a story being told, the train of images would be chaotic, utterly disorienting.  The poems wold fail, on their own terms, and on ours.

The four prose poems are:  “Verwandlung des Bösen” (“Transformation of Evil”), “Winternacht” (“Winter Night”), “Traum und Umnachtung” (“Dream & Madness”), and “Offenbarung und Untergang” (“Revelation & Decline”).  The latter two are especially rich in imagery and astounding in the way they develop, finding hidden passageways between images and ideas.  I have taken up only one of them here, “Revelation & Decline,” and to give a sense of the movement and strangeness of the poem, I try to show it in two ways:  first as a prose poem, and then as a poem in a more traditional form, broken into sections and line breaks.

The narrative of the poem appears to center on a dream of the sister, in a world where death is the under text and incest, or the threat of it, is a constant mental companion, an ongoing source of guilt that cannot be expunged, and from which the only escape is a plunge into the abyss.  The poem opens with a vision of the world inhabited by dreamers.  Everyone is asleep, their rooms are stone, the light of each person small, motionless.  The narrator dreams that he is sleepwalking through it, an orphan whose father has died, a notion stated on one of the most beautiful lines in the poem:  “In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son.”  The speaker is haunted by dreams of his own madness and of the dead sister, and of his guilt, which is cause less but real.  There is death around him, bitterness in the world, storms, blood, a dead horse–what does he have to do with any of this?  Did he cause it?  Are these merely tokens of a world he lives in, or markers of any interior nightmare?  Or–as these are not exclusive options–both?  The poem is extraordinarily rich, very beautiful, and haunting.  We can feel the truth of it without necessarily knowing why, at every moment, it is true.

Here is the poem.  Note that the numerical section separators, shown in other versions, do not appear in the actual poem.  I do not include them in the prose version, but I do in the poetic version that follows:

Revelation & Decline

The dark paths of men are strange. When I was sleepwalking I passed rooms of stone & in each there burned a small motionless lamp, a copper candlestick, & when I collapsed freezing on my bed at its head the black shadow of the strange woman stood there again, & slowly & silently I buried my face in my hands. The hyacinth at the window had also blossomed into blue, & the old prayer came to Odmenden’s purple lips, the world-bitterness bringing crystal tears. In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son. The night-wind shivered, from the hill in blue rain, & with it the dark cry of the mother was fading again, & I saw the black hell in my own heart —that moment of glittering quiet.  Softly, a face that I cannot describe emerged from the chalky wall—it was a dying youth, the beauty of a race returning home. Moon-white, the coolness of stone embraces the waking temple, the footsteps of shadows fade on the ruined stairs, & the dance among the roses in the little garden.


I sat silent & alone, drinking wine in the abandoned inn under charred wooden beams; a shining corpse bent over the dark one & a dead lamb lay at my feet. The pale figure of the sister emerged then from the decayed blue, her mouth bleeding, saying: Black thorn, pierce. Alas, still I hear the ringing of silver arms from the fierce storms. Blood, flow from the lunar feet that bloom on dark paths the shrieking rat flits past. Stars flare in my arched eyebrows, & gently the heart sounds in the night. A red shadow with a burning sword broke into the house, then fled with a brow of snow. O bitter death.

Then a dark voice spoke from within me: I broke the neck of my black horse in the night-forest, because there was madness in his purple eyes; the shadows of elms fell on me, the blue laughter of the fountain & the black coolness of the night, & I was a wild hunter pursuing the snow-white deer; my face died away in a hell of stone.

Then a glittering drop of blood fell in the wine of the Lonely One; & as I drank it, it was more bitter than the poppy; & a black cloud enveloped my head, the crystal tears of the drowned angels; & gently the blood ran from the sister’s silver wounds & a fiery rain fell on me.


I want to be a silent thing walking at the wood’s edge, one from whose mute hands the sun of hair descends; a stranger at the hill of night who weeps & opens his eyes over the city of stone; a deer standing motionless in the peace of the ancient elder; o the brain filled by twilight casts about, listening restlessly, or the hesitant footsteps follow the blue cloud on the hill, & the grave constellations.  Nearby, the green corn goes along silently, & the timid young deer comes with us on the mossy wood-paths. The huts in the villages are closed up & silent & the blue lament of their mountain torrent is frightening in the black calm of the wind.

But as I climbed down the cliff-path, madness seized me & I cried out into the night; & as I bent with silver fingers over the silent water, I saw myself faceless. And the white voice spoke to me: Kill yourself! The shadow of the child groaned & rose up in me & saw me radiant with his crystal eyes, so that I fell weeping under the trees, the enormous vault of the stars.


The restless journey through the wild rock so far from the towns of evening, & the birds returning home; far away the sun lowers itself & grazes in the crystal pasture, its wild song shaking us like something violent, the bird’s lonely cry died in the blue calm. But you come softly in the night as I lay still awake on the hill or when madness has taken me in the spring thunder-storm; the sad clouds darken above the head of the dead one, horrible flashes of lightning terrify the dark spirit, your hands tear to pieces my breast from which all breath is gone.


As I entered the twilight garden & the black form of evil had abandoned me, the hyacinth calm of night embraced me; & I sailed in my arched boat over the calm water, & a sweet calm touched my petrified brow. I lay dumb under the old willows & the blue sky above me was high & filled with stars; my thinking self died away & fear & sorrow died their heavy deaths in me; the blue shadow of the boy rose up shining in the darkness, singing softly; it rose then, on moon-like wings above the crystal reefs, the white face of the sister.


I climbed down the thorny steps with silver soles & entered the whitewashed chamber. The candlestick burned quietly within & I buried my head silently in purple linen.  The earth threw out a child-like corpse, a creation of the moon, that slowly stepped from my shadow, & the lid of stone sank down on smashed arms, flakes of snow.


And here is the version of the poem broken into poetic lines.  Attentive readers will note some impositions and additions, making this perhaps more a version than a translation.  One might argue that every translation is a version, there being only one original, and that in another language; and that no langauge translates easily or accurately into the idiom of another.  Both comments are fair:  first, that it is a version and second, that liberties are taken but only in an effort to enhance the flow of the poem, or to follow the logic of this or that image, including an entire twist on the concluding lines.  It is not the original, or an accurate transcription, but I hope it is yet pleasurable on its own terms.

Revelation & Decline


The dark paths of men are strange.
Sleepwalking I passed rooms of stone,
& in each there burned a small motionless lamp.
The flames above the copper candlesticks wavered
As when breath is taken or given back.

But when I collapsed freezing on my bed,
I saw the black shadow of the strange woman again,
& slowly & silently buried my face in my hands.


The hyacinth at the window blossomed into the blue
& the old prayer came again to Odmenden’s purple lips,
The bitterness of this world bringing crystal tears.

In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son.


The night-wind shivered from the hill
In blue rain,
& with it the dark cry of the mother faded again,
& I saw the black hell that is my own heart again:

In that moment of glittering quiet
Softly, a face I cannot describe emerged from the chalky wall—

It was a dying youth,
Containing all the the beauty of a race returning home.
O moon!  O whiteness!
O coolness of stone embracing the waking temple!

Now the footsteps of shadows fade on the ruined stairs,
The dance finally ended among the roses in the little garden.


I sat silent & alone, drinking wine in the abandoned inn
Where the charred wooden beams still showed.
A shining corpse bent over the dark one
& a dead lamb lay at my feet.

The pale figure of the sister
Emerged then from the decayed blue,
Her mouth bleeding as she said:
Black thorn, pierce—

But all I could hear was the ringing of their silver arms
& the fiercer storms that waited.


Blood, flow now from the lunar feet
That bloom on dark paths
That the shrieking rat flits past—

Stars flare in my arched eyebrows,
& gently the heart sounds in the night.

A red shadow with a burning sword broke into the house
Then fled with a brow of snow….  O bitter death.


A dark voice spoke from within me:
It said I had broken the neck of my black horse in the night-forest,
Because there was madness in his purple eyes;

& then the shadows of elms fell on me,
& I heard the blue laughter of the fountain

& in the black coolness, pursuing the snow-white deer,
I was the wild hunter

Whose face had died away in a hell of stone.

A glittering drop of blood fell in the wine of the Lonely One;
It seemed more bitter even than the poppy as I drank it,

& a black cloud enveloped my head,
& the crystal tears of the drowned angels;

& gently the blood ran from the sister’s silver wounds
& a fiery rain fell on me.


I want to be a silent thing walking at the wood’s edge,
One from whose mute hands the sun of hair descends,
A stranger at the hill of night who weeps & looks out over the city of stone,
A deer standing motionless in the peace of the ancient elder tree….

The brain filled by twilight casts about, listening restlessly,
The hesitant footsteps follow the blue cloud on the hill,
& the grave constellations.


Near us now the green corn goes along silently,
& the timid young deer comes with us on the mossy wood-paths,
The huts in the villages are closed up & silent,
& the blue lament of the mountain torrent
Is frightening in the black calm of the wind.

But as I climbed down the cliff-path,
Madness seized me
& I cried out into the night,
& as I bent with silver fingers over the silent water,
I saw myself as one of those who lack a true face;

The white voice spoke to me:  Kill yourself!
& the shadow of the child groaned & rose up in me

& I saw myself radiant with his crystal eyes,
& I fell weeping & exhausted under the trees,
Under the enormous vaults of the stars.


The restless journey through the wild rock
So far from the towns of evening,
& the birds returning home;

Far away the sun lowers itself
& grazes in the crystal pasture,
Its wild song shaking us like something violent;

The bird’s lonely cry died then in the blue calm.

But you come softly in the night
As I lay still awake on the hill

Or when the madness has taken me,
In the spring thunder-storm,
& the sad clouds darken

Above the head of the dead one,
& horrible flashes of lightning
Terrify the dark spirit,

& your hands tore to pieces my breast,
From which breath is already gone.


As I entered the twilight garden
& the black form of evil had abandoned me,
Hyacinth calm of night embraced me;

& I sailed in my arched boat over the calm water,
& a sweet calm touched my petrified brow.

I lay dumb under old willows
& the blue sky above me was high & filled with stars;

My thinking self had died away
& fear & sorrow died their heavy deaths in me;

The blue shadow of the boy rose up shining in the darkness,
Singing softly,

& on moon-like wings, it rose then,
Above the crystal reefs:  the white face of the sister.


I climbed down
The thorny steps with silver soles
& entered the whitewashed chamber.

The candlestick burned quietly within
& I buried my head silently in purple linen.

From the earth came a child-like corpse,
Violently, thrown out,
A creation of the moon—

It slowly stepped from my shadow,
& plunged with shattered arms
Down the stony abyss

Scattered around me like flakes of snow….


More of the Brilliant Trakl Poems of 1914

Here are more of my translations of the great Trakl poems of 1914.   These include the terrifying war poem, “In The East,” the odd and lovely and desolate “Homecoming,” and a first version of “Lament.”  This is not the famous “Klage,” one of Trakl’s last poems, but neither is it an early version.  It stands on its own.  All of these poems were published in the magazine Brenner in 1914-1915.

Trakl’s work has had an interesting publication history, reception, and influence. In his lifetime, only his Gedichte (Poems) was published, in 1913.  In 1915, the year after his death the extraordinary Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian in the Dream) was published, a volume he had prepared prior to his suicide.  Both books proved popular, and in 1918 his publisher brought out a collected poems, Die Dichtungen.  As his fame grew, translations appeared in Czech, Rumanian, and English in the 1920’s, and musical settings of some of the poems were published in 1922 by Paul Hindemith.   Appreciation was wide, though there was not much critical commentary or deep analysis, perhaps because the poems seem to travel directly into our appreciation and sensibility without much room for the usual kinds of critical analysis.  In fact, there was not much deep critical commentary on Trakl until the 1950’s.  Interest grew markedly with the publication in 1961 of Robert Bly and James Wright’s Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (Sixties Press (Madison), 1961).

One of the more interesting comments came in 1915, from Rilke in a private letter on Sebastian I’m Traum that was published much later:  “I imagine that even those standing close shall still experience these views and insights as if through a window-pane: since Trakls’ experience goes as if in reflections and fills his whole room, which is unenterable, like the room in a mirror. (Who could he have been?)”  I like these comments a lot, that description of wide vistas in enclosed space circling back endlessly on itself.  Heidegger has also made some wonderful and fascinating comments on the poems, in the way they open and close, present and distance themselves and their objects and images.  I also like this by Robert Bly:  “The poems of Georg Trakl have a magnificent silence in them. It is very rare that he himself talks—for the most part he allows the images to speak for him.”

The images speak, not the poet.  It is a brilliant comment, and perfectly describes the feeling we get reading the poems:



The coolness of dark years,
Pain & Hope
Preserved by cyclopean rock,
Abandoned mountains,
Autumn’s gold breath,
Evening cloud—

Crystal childhood
Looks on with blue eyes;
Under dark spruce
Love, Hope,
Dew that falls
From fiery eyelids onto the stiff grass—

The gold path
Breaks in the snow
Of the abyss!
The dark valley
Breathes blue coolness,
Faith, Hope!
Lonely churchyard, welcome!

Lament (I)

Child, from your crystal mouth
Your gold gaze sank into the valley;
The woods trembling red & lifeless
Wave in the black evening hour.
Evening strikes such deep wounds!

Fear! The dream-sickness of death,
The withered grave & the spent
Year gazes from the tree & deer;
A sallow field, & an acre of land.
The shepherd calls the frightened sheep.

Your blue brows, sister,
Beckon gently in the night.
The organ groans & hell laughs
& the heart is seized with horror—
It would rather look upon star & angel.

The mother must fear for her child;
The ore sounds red in the pit,
Lust, tears, stony sorrow,
The dark legends of the Titans,
Sadness!  Sad cries of solitary eagles.

Night Surrender

Holy Sister, let your darkness embrace me,
Your mountains so cold & blue!
The dew bleeds down & is dark;
The cross looms up against the glittering stars.

When the mouth & the lie finally broke
There was purple in the room’s decaying coolness;
Then the laughter shone, then the gold game,
Then the last windings of the clock.

A cloud across the moon! At night,
Wild fruit falls black from the tree,
& the room becomes a grave,
& this earthly pilgrimage a dream.

In The East

The grim anger of nations,
Like the wild organ-sounds of the winter storm,
The purple wave of battle,
Stars that have shed their leaves.

With shattered foreheads & silver arms
Night calls to the dying soldiers.
The spirits of the battle-dead groan
In the shadow of autumnal ash.

A desert of thorns surrounds the city.
The moon chases the terrified women
From steps that are bleeding.
Wild wolves have broken through the gate.


Let me conclude this blog entry with James Wright’s wonderful description of his own experience of Trakl’s poetry, made in his 1975 Paris Review interview.  He was talking about a time in the 1950’s, just after reading a copy of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties, which contained a translation of a poem by Trakl:

Some years earlier, at the University of Vienna, I had read in German the poetry of Trakl and I didn’t know what to do with it, though I recognized that somehow it had a depth of life in it that I needed. Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another. I would suppose that Trakl has had as much influence on me as anybody else has had. But the interesting thing is that when I read Robert Bly’s magazine, I wrote him a letter. It was sixteen pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was, “Come on out to the farm.” I made my way out to that farm, and almost as soon as we met each other we started to work on our translation of Trakl.

It resulted in one of the great Bly-Wright collaborative books of translation, mentioned above, Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl.  Wright was so taken by that experience that Trakl’s modes influenced some of his subsequent poems.  You can see the influence for example in a poem like “Rain”:

It is the sinking of things.

Flashlights drift over dark trees.
Girls kneel.
An owl’s eyelids fall.

The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley
Of strange rocks.

I spent hours with that poem as an undergraduate at Hobart, as I was trying to learn the craft of writing poetry, understand the taxonomy and power of images.  This poem overwhelmed me as tried to understand how Wright had composed it, and how he balanced out the relative weight of these apparently so simple lines to reach that extraordinary conclusion.  How does a line like “Girls kneel” manage to occupy the same space and weight—for it does—as the “sad bones” line.  What are those “strange rocks,” and how do they receive this sinking?  There is something magical in all of that, an set of invisible relations, an ordering of things that resists analysis, and that, as in so much of Trakl’s work, makes the poetry.