“I respond more to revelation”: Hart Crane on Fire

CranePerhaps because he embodied that rarest of combinations—the energy and enthusiasm of youth, and actual genius—there are few writers better at articulating the fire of creation than Hart Crane. The following selection from his letters carries Crane from his early twenties to a few years before he died at thirty-two: here is is writing The Bridge, becoming intoxicated with John Donne and the Elizabethan dramatists, defending himself from charges of willful obscurity or “sophistication,” and finally (in the most defensive of the letters, especially the last), he is writing to that great grumpy man, Yvor Winters, daring to suggest that a wild and revelatory act such as The Bridge, even if it fails, is better than Yvor’s academic poetry and sad attempts to nail it all down to theory and aesthetic dogma.

And there is also this passage, my favorite among nearly all letters from poets:

February 20, 1923 – Those who have wept in the darkness sometimes are rewarded with stray leaves blown inadvertently. Since your last I have [had] one of those few experiences that come,—ever, but which are almost sufficient in their very incompleteness…. And we who create must endure—must hold to spirit not by the mind, the intellect alone. These have no mystic possibilities. O flesh damned to hate and scorn! I have felt my cheek pressed on the desert these days and months too much. How old I am! Yet, oddly now this sense [of] age—not at all in my senses—is gaining me altogether unique love and happiness. I feel I have been thru much of this again and again before. I long to go to India and stay always. Meditation on the sun is all there is. Not that this isn’t enough! I mean I find my imagination more sufficient all the time. The work of the workaday world is what I dislike. I spend my evenings in music and sometimes ecstasy…. I’m bringing much into contemporary verse that is new. I’m on a synthesis of America and its structural identity now, called The Bridge. (133-134)


January 5, 1917 – I realize more entirely every day, that I am preparing for a fine life: that I have powers, which, if correctly balanced, will enable me to mount to extraordinary latitudes. There is constantly an inward struggle, but the time to worry is only when there is no inward debate, and consequently there is smooth sliding to the devil. (10)

April 7 – I shall really without a doubt be one of the foremost poets of America if I am enabled to devote enough time to my art. (12)

April 14, 1920 – Excuse me,—but I am tired, peevish, and impulsive, and shall write you but a disordered record at best. I feel like committing what is left of me after the day’s end, to paper, and you shall have the bones of the feast anyway. (38)

October 17, 1921 – I can only apologize by saying that if my work seems needlessly sophisticated it is because I am only interested in adding what seems to me something really new to what has been written. Unless one has some new, intensely personal viewpoint to record, say on the eternal feelings of love, and the suitable personal idiom to employ in the act, I say, why write about it? Nine chances out of ten, if you know where in the past to look, you will find words already written in the more-or-less exact tongue of your soul. And the complaint to be made against nine out of ten poets is just this,—that you are apt to find their sentiments much better expressed perhaps four hundred years past. (70)

October 17, 1921 – I admit to a slight leaning towards the esoteric, and am perhaps not to be taken seriously. I am fond of things of great fragility, and also and especially of a kind of poetry John Donne represents, a dark musky, brooding, speculative vintage, at once sensual and spiritual, and singing rather the beauty of experience than innocence. (70)

November 26, 1921 – I can see myself from now rapidly joining Josephson in a kind of Elizabethan fanaticism. You have doubtless known my long-standing friendship with Donne, Webster, and Marlowe. Now I have another Mermaid “conjugal” to strengthen the tie. The fact is, I can find nothing in modern work to come up to the verbal richness, irony and emotion of these folks, and I would like to let them influence me as much as they can in the interpretation of modern moods,—somewhat as Eliot has beautifully done. There are parts of his “Gerontion” that you can find almost bodily in Webster and Jonson…. I don’t want to imitate Eliot, of course,—but I have come to the stage now where I want to carefully choose my most congenial influences and, in a way, “cultivate” their influence. I can say with J[osephson] that the problem of form becomes harder and harder for me every day. I am not at all satisfied with anything I have thus far done, mere winnowings, and too slight to satisfy me. I have never, so far, been able to present a vital, living and tangible,—a positive emotion to my satisfaction. For as soon as I attempt such an act I either grow obvious or ordinary, and abandon the thing at the second line. Oh! it is hard! One must be drenched in words, literally soaked with them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. (71-72)

January 10, 1922 – My aims make writing slow for me, and so far I have done practically nothing,—but I can wait for slow improvements rather more easily than I can let a lot of stuff loose that doesn’t satisfy me. There is plenty of it in the publishing houses and magazines every day to amuse the folks that like it. This may very well be a tiresome ranting for you, but I think you will like the quotations anyway. (79)

June 18, 1922 – O Gorham [Munson], I have known moments in eternity. I tell you this as one who is a brother. I want you to know me as I feel myself to be sometimes…. You know I live for work,—for poetry. I shall do my best work later when I am about 35 or 40. The imagination is the only thing worth a damn. Lately I have grown terribly isolated, and very egoist. One has to do it [in] Cleveland. I rush home from work to my room, hung with the creates of Sommer and Lescaze—and fiddle through the evenings. If I could afford wine every evening I might do more. But I am slow anyway. (92-3)

November 20, 1922 – What do you think of Eliot’s The Wastelands? I was rather disappointed. It was good, of course, but so damned dead. Neither does it, in my opinion, add anything important to Eliot’s achievement. (108)

February 6, 1923 – I am ruminating on a new longish poem under the title of The Bridge which carries on further the tendencies manifest in “F and H.” [“The Marriage of Faustus and Helen”] It will be extremely difficult to accomplish it as I see it now, so much time will be wasted in thinking about it. (123)

February 20, 1923 – Those who have wept in the darkness sometimes are rewarded with stray leaves blown inadvertently. Since your last I have [had] one of those few experiences that come,—ever, but which are almost sufficient in their very incompleteness…. And we who create must endure—must hold to spirit not by the mind, the intellect alone. These have no mystic possibilities. O flesh damned to hate and scorn! I have felt my cheek pressed on the desert these days and months too much. How old I am! Yet, oddly now this sense [of] age—not at all in my senses—is gaining me altogether unique love and happiness. I feel I have been thru much of this again and again before. I long to go to India and stay always. Meditation on the sun is all there is. Not that this isn’t enough! I mean I find my imagination more sufficient all the time. The work of the workaday world is what I dislike. I spend my evenings in music and sometimes ecstasy…. I’m bringing much into contemporary verse that is new. I’m on a synthesis of America and its structural identity now, called The Bridge. (133-134)

March 2, 1923 – To get those, and others of men like Strauss, Ravel, Scriabine, and Block into words one needs to ransack the vocabularies of Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster (for theirs were the richest) and add our scientific, street and counter, and psychological terms, etc. Yet, I claim that such things can be done! The modern artist needs gigantic assimilative capacities, emotion,—and the greatest of allvision. (137)

July 21, 1923 – My mother has had her full share of suffering and I have had much, also. I have had enough, anyway, to realize that it is all very beautiful in the end if you will pierce through to the center of it and see it in relation to the real emotion and values of Life. Do not think I am entirely happy here,—or ever will be, for that matter, except for a few moments at a time when I am perhaps writing or receiving a return of love. The true idea of God is the only thing that can give happiness,—and that is the identification of yourself with all of life…. One cannot live in these days and in such places as cities without at least a few friends that like the same things as you do and have minds and souls. (158)

December 21, 1923 One can live happily on very little, I have found, if the mind and spirit have some definite objects in view. I expect I’ll always have to drudge for my living, and I’m quite willing to always do it, but I am no more fooling myself that the mental bondage and spiritual bondage of the more remunerative sorts of work is worth the sacrifices inevitably involved. If I can’t continue to create the sort of poetry that is my intensest and deepest component in life—then it all means very little to me, and then I might as well tie myself up to some smug ambition and “success” (the common idol that every Tom Dick and harry is bowing to everywhere). But so far, as you know, I only grow more and more convinced that what I naturally have to give the world in my own terms—is worth giving, and I’ll go through a number of ordeals yet to pursue a natural course…. Look around you and see the numbers and numbers of so-called “successful” people, successful in the worldly sense of the word. I wonder how many of them are happy in the sense that you and I know what real happiness means! I’m glad we aren’t so dumb as all that, even though we do have to suffer a great deal. Suffering is a real purification, and the worst thing I have always had to say against Christian Science [Crane is writing to his mother, who is a Christian Scientist] is that it willfully avoided suffering, without a certain measure of which any true happiness cannot be fully realized. (174)

January 12, 1924 – …I think, though, from the above, you will now see why I would not regard it as honest to accept your proposition, offered as it was in such frankness and good will. I don’t want to use you as a makeshift when my principle ambition and life lies completely outside of business. I always have given the people I worked for my wages worth of service, but it would be a very different sort of thing to come to one’s father and simple feign an interest in fulfilling a confidence when one’s mind and guts aren’t driving in that direction at all. I hope you credit me with genuine sincerity as well as the appreciation of your best motives in this statement.
You will perhaps be righteously a little bewildered at all these statements about my enthusiasm about my writing and my devotion to that career in life. It is true that I have to date very little to show as actual accomplishment in this field, but it is true that on the other hand that I have had very little time left over after the day’s work to give to it and I may have just as little time in the wide future to give to it, too. Be all that as it may, I have come to recognize that I am satisfied and spiritually healthy only when I am fulfilling myself in that direction. It is my natural one, and you will possibly admit that if it had been artificial or acquired, or a mere youthful whim it would have been cast off some time ago in favor of more profitable occupations from the standpoint of monetary returns. For I have been through some pretty trying situations, and, indeed, I am in just such a one again at the moment, with less than two dollars in my pocket and not definitely located in any sort of job.
However, I shall doubtless be able to turn my hand to something very humble and temporary as I have done before. I have many friends, some of whom will lend me small sums until I can repay them—and some sort of job always turns up sooner or later. What pleases me is that so many distinguished people have liked my poems (seen in magazines and mss.)… If I am able to keep on in my present development, strenuous as it is, you may live to see the name ‘Crane’ stand for something where literature is talked about, not only in New York but in London and abroad.
You are a very busy man these days as I well appreciate from the details in your letter, and I have perhaps bored you with these explanations about myself… Nevertheless, as I’ve said before, I couldn’t see any other way than to frankly tell you about myself and my interests so as not to leave any accidental afterthoughts in your mind that I had any ‘personal’ reasons for not working for the Crane Company. And in closing I would like to just ask you to think sometime,—try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,—something that maybe can’t be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between man and man, a bond of understanding and human enlight[en]ment—which is what a real work of art is. If you do that, maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end. (177-180)

March 1, 1924 – It’s encouraging that people say they get at least some kind of impact from my poems, even when they are honest in admitting considerable mystification. “Make my dark poem light, and light” [“The Progress of the Soul” line 55], however, is the text I chose from Donne some time ago as my direction. I have always been working hard for a more perfect lucidity, and it never pleases me to be taken as willfully obscure or esoteric. (183)

November 16, 1924 – There’s no stopping for rest, however, when one is in the “current” of creation, so to speak, and so I’ve spent all of today at one or two stubborn lines. My work is becoming known for its formal perfection and hard glowing polish, but most of those qualities, I’m afraid, are due to a great deal of labor and patience on my part. Besides working on parts of my Bridge I’m engaged in writing a series of six sea poems called “Voyages” (they are also love poems)… (198)

December 3, 1925 – Besides the poems collected in my forthcoming volume [White Buildings] I have partially written a long poem, the conception of which has been in my mind for some years. I have had to work at it very intermittently, between night and morning, and while shorter efforts can be more successfully completed under such crippling circumstances, a larger conception such as this poem, The Bridge, aiming as it does to enunciate a new cultural synthesis of values in terms of our America, requires a more steady application and less interruption than my circumstances have get granted me to give to it. (213)

January 18, 1926 – The bridge in becoming a ship, a world, a woman, a tremendous harp (as it does finally) seems to really have a career. (227)

March 5, 1926 – As Waldo may have mentioned, the finale of the Bridge is written, the other five or six parts are in feverish embryo. (230)

June 10, 1926 – All this is inconsecutive and indeterminate because I am trying to write shorthand about an endless subject—and moreover am unresolved as to any ultimate conviction. I am not fancying that I am “enlightening” you about anything,—nor, if I thought I were merely exposing personal sores, would I continue to be so monotonous. Emotionally I should like to write the bridge; intellectually judged the whole theme and project seems more and more absurd…. The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I’m at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between the past and a future worthy of it… The bridge as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks…. If only America were half as worthy today to be spoken of as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago there might be something for one to say—not that Whitman received or required any tangible proof of his intimations, but that time has shown how increasingly lonely and ineffectual his confidence stands. (258-9)

August 3, 1926 – Enclosed is [The Bridge section] “Atlantis,” there  have been variances since your copy whether you have it now or not. —So will you kindly humor my present little neurosis, and take care of this. I feel as though I were dancing on dynamite these days—so absolute and elaborated has become the conception. All sections moving forward now at once! I didn’t realize that a bridge is begun from the two ends at once. (266)

August 12, 1926 – I’m happy, quite well, and living as never before. The accumulation of impressions and concepts gathered the last several years and constantly repressed by immediate circumstances are having a chance to function, I believe. And nothing but this large form would hold them without the violences that mar so much of my previous, more casual work. The Bridge is already longer than the Wasteland,—and it’s only about half done. (268)

November 15, 1926 – Your quotations are, several of them, old favorites of mine. And you are right about modern epics—except—until somebody actually overcomes the limitations. This will have to be done by a new form,—and, of course, new forms are never desirable until they are simply forced into being by new materials. Perhaps any modern equivalent of the old epic form should be called by some other name, for certainly, as I see it, the old definition cannot cover the kind of poem I am trying to write except on certain fundamental points. At least both are concerned with material which can be called mythical…. But what is “mythical” in, or rather, of the twentieth century not the Kaiser, the sinking of the Titanic, etc. Rather it is science, travel (in the name of speed)—psychoanalysis, etc. With, of course, the eternal verities of sea, mountain and river still at work.
The old narrative form, then—with is concomitant species of rhetoric, is obviously unequal to the task. [I would humbly disagree.] It may well be that the link-by-link cumulative effect of the ancients cannot have an equivalent in any modern epic form. However, there are certain basically mythical factors in our Western world which literally cry for embodiment. Oddly, as I see it, they cannot be presented completely (any of them) in isolated order, but in order to appear in their true, luminous reality must be presented in chronological and organic order, out of which you get a kind of bridge, the quest of which bridge is—nothing less ambitious than the annihilation of time and space, the prime myth of the modern world.
The labor of locating the interrelations between sources, facts and appearances in all this is, believe me, difficult. One may be doomed to the kind of half-success which is worse than failure. (287-88)

March 17, 1927 – It takes more than ordinary mental logic, of course, to fuse all multitudinous aspects of such a theme [The Bridge]—I carried the embryonic Idea of the poem about with me for six years before I ever wrote a line. Then there was a sudden impetus, the results of which you have seen almost entirely. I am beginning to think it may be six more years before the materials for the rest of the poem shall have reached a sufficiently mature organization to be ready for paper. Logic or no logic, I can never do anything that is worth while without the assent of my intuitions….
It gives you or at least is so intended—nothing more than the primitive attitude I take toward both materials and aesthetic dogmas. There seems to me really no convincing modus operandi but what you might call alert blindness. Aesthetic speculations, etc. are of course endlessly interesting to me and stimulating. But not one that I have ever encountered has been quite equal to the necessary assimilation of experience—the artist’s chief problem. I admit many biases. For instance, I have a more or less religious attitude toward creation and expression. I respond more to revelation—or what seem revelation to me—than I do to what seems to me “repetitious”—however classic and noble. (327)

April 29, 1927: As for that “Atlantis” [section in The Bridge]—I imagine it to be too subjectively written for me to legitimately explain or condone. It was the first part of the poem to be written—and that in a kind of three-days fit, the memory alone of which is enough to justify it with me. (333)

April 17, 1928: Thank God the sea is near, that’s all I can be grateful for. (372)

April 27, 1928: I could live in the water and be quite contented. (373)

June 4, 1930: Your primary presumption that The Bridge was proffered as an epic has no substantial foundation.  You know quite well that I doubt that our present stage of cultural development is so ordered yet as to provide the means or method for such an organic manifestation as that. Since your analysis found no evidence of epic form, no attempt even to stimulate the traditional qualifications or pedantic trappings,—then I wonder what basis you had for attributing such an aim to the work,—unless, perhaps, to submit me to an indignity which might be embarrassing on the grounds that I could be stripped of unjustified pretensions.
The fact that The Bridge contains folk lore and other material suitable to the epic form need not therefore prove its failures as a long lyric poem, with interrelated sections. Rome was written about long before the age of Augustus, and I dare say that Virgil was assisted by several well traveled roads to guide him, though it is my posthumous suggestion that when we do have an “epic” it need not necessarily incorporate a personalized “hero”….
It took over five years of sustained something-or-other to compose The Bridge—with more actual and painful “differentiation of experience” into the bargain that I’ll wager you will ever take upon yourself. The results have not been as satisfactory as I had hoped for; but I believe that such “wreckage” as I find remaining, presents evidence of considerably more significance than do the cog-walk gestures of a beetle in a sand pit.
Yours, [unsigned] (428-430)


And here are two passages from the years following these letters, from Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane, The Broken Tower:

[September, 1931, in Tepotzlán, Mexico] They’d arrived, it turned out, on the eve of the Feast of Tepoztecatl, the ancient Aztec god of pulque, corn liquor. Crane had noticed the impressive ruins of the god’s temple, destroyed centuries earlier by the Spanish, set high on the cliff overlooking one end of the valley. The following day, he and Rourke went out in the cornfields, looking for signs of the older Indian civilization that had flourished here before the coming of the Spanish. Together, they found several fragments of Aztec idols that had been turned over by plows. When they showed these to the elders, they were told some of the legends surrounding Tepoztecatl, even as they were served hot coffee laced with pulque. What wonderful people these Indians were, Crane mused, who “still stuck to their ancient rites despite all the oppression of the Spaniards for near 400 years.” In writing The Bridge, except for the New York City cabdriver named Maquokeeta he’d talked with one night, he had had to imagine the Indian through an ersatz American myth and history, and the poem had suffered accordingly. Now he was coming into direct contact with the descendants of the Aztecs. The descent into the essential soil of Mexico had begun in earnest.

That evening, as the sun was setting, Crane and Rourke were drinking tequila at an outdoor coffee bar when they noticed a light on the roof of the cathedral. Suddenly, a drum and flute began playing “the most stirring and haunting kind of savage summons,” and they found themselves running toward the cathedral and up the church stairs onto the roof. What they found were several groups of older Indian men—some twenty in all—standing about with lanterns and talking while the drums and flute played on. The musicians, faces turned toward the ruined temple atop its precipice two miles away, played on and on, ceasing only when the sextons rang the great cathedral bells, which called the faithful to prayer at fifteen-minute intervals. When the bells ceased, the drums and flutes resumed. For two hours, this antiphon of response and counterresponse between cathedral gong and tribal flute and drum continued. Then rockets began firing from the parapets of the cathedral, answered by rockets going off from the temple.

“Sitting there,” Crane would remember, “on top of that church, with the lightning playing on one horizon, a new moon sinking on the opposite, and with millions of stars overhead and between and with that strange old music beating in one’s blood—it was like being in the land of Oz.” Two musics, two worlds, each at odds with the other, become now a single reality. “There really did not seem to be a real conflict that amazing night,” Crane would tell Bill Wright afterwards, for he’d seen these same Indian elders at mass as well. To witness, as he’d been privileged to witness, such contradictory forces reconciled in the enactments of music! Finally, when the music ended at nine, Crane invited the elders to the bar for a glass of tequila before retiring. In turn they invited the two Americans to join them at 3:00 a.m., when the bells would once again begin ringing in the tower and the drums and flute would play in antiphonal response until sunrise.

It was the music that woke Crane, but not until 5:00 a.m., when he poked Rourke and they ran back to the cathedral for more hot coffee and pulque and to “see the sun rise over that marvelous valley to such ringing of bells and wild music as I never expect to hear again.” Crane was struck by the presence of an ancient Aztec drum, “a large wooden cylinder, exquisitely carved and showing a figure with animal head, upright, and walking through thick woods.” A pre-Conquest drum, “guarded year after year from the destruction of the priests and conquerors, that how many hundreds of times had been beaten to propitiate the god.” And here it was, the thing itself, lying on its side, on the roof of the cathedral, while an elder, seated with legs folded, struck it with two heavily padded drumsticks. The night before, this same drum had echoed through the valley from its place of honor in the distant ruined temple. Now it had been brought here to greet the rising god.

And then, as the sun began to come up and the excitement mounted to a near-impossible pitch, the man who had been playing the ancient drum suddenly placed two sticks in Crane’s hands and nodded. Crane was stunned. Never had he heard of any American being allowed to participate like this in the pulque ceremony before. “It seemed too good to be true, really,” he would tell Bill Wright, “that I, who had expected to be thrown off the roof when I entered the evening before, should now be invited to actually participate.” Somehow, he managed to maintain “the exact rhythm with all due accents” he’d been listening to for the last several hours, even working in his own rift, “based on the lighter tattoo of the more modern drum of the evening before.” And though the heavy drumsticks soon tired his forearms, he believed he’d been a hit, and that the old men would have embraced him had decorum allowed. Several, in fact, did put their arms around his shoulders and walked back and forth with him the entire length of the roof as the bells rang and “the whole place seemed to go mad in the refulgence of full day.”

Wonderful as it had been to hear those great bells ringing, however, it had been “inestimably better to see the sextons wield the hammers, swinging on them with the full weight of their entire bodies like frantic acrobats,” even as rockets burst into the bell-thronged sunrise before they disappeared. There would be other memories of Tepotzlán: bathing with an Indian lad in a mountain pool and meeting the vicar of the cathedral. But these were dying falls compared to what he had experienced atop the cathedral, where he had helped summon God into this old upon old, ever fresh New World. (383-385)


[April 27, 1932, on the ship Orizaba, ten miles each of the Florida coast, 275 miles north of Havana] ….A few minutes before noon, there was a knock at her door. It was Crane, still in pajamas, but wearing a light topcoat over them. She told him to shave and get dressed and join her for lunch. “I’m not going to make it, dear,” he told her, his voice already drifting. “I’m utterly disgraced.” Nonsense, she told him. How much better he’d feel once he was dressed. “All right, dear,” he said. He leaned over, kissed her goodbye, and closed the door behind him. Then he walked along the promenade deck toward the stern of the ship.

Gertrude Vogt, one of the passengers sitting on deck chairs by the stern, was waiting along with others to hear the results of the ship’s pool, which would be announced at noon. She looked up to see a man walking toward her. Earlier that day, she would recall forty years later, one of the ship’s officers had told her and some of the others that a man “had been in the sailors’ quarters the previous night, trying to make one of the men, and had been badly beaten.” Now she watched as that man, in coat and pajamas, walked up to the railing, took off his coat, and folded it over the railing. Then he “placed both hands on the railing, raised himself on his toes, and … dropped back again. We all fell silent and watched him, wondering what in the world he was up to. Then, suddenly, he vaulted over the railing and jumped into the sea. For what seemed like five minutes, but was more like five seconds, no one was able to move; then cries of ‘man overboard’ went up. Just once I saw Crane, swimming strongly, but never again.” (420)