William Rose Benét: On Hart Crane, "Mr. Moon's Journal"

March 1st: Just Craning around.

The more I think of it the less I can make out of it. Last night there was champagne and today – No, no, no, don’t make that pun or I shall scream! No. No. Now. Now. Easy; be easy; everything under control; tha-at’s right! Light night – there was – champagne; and today – there’s – Hart Crane. That’s better. Now it’s over. I knew it would be better. I knew I could walk around that obstacle safely; if I only took my time to do it. But still – the more I think of it, the less I can make out of it. I mean Mr. Crane’s poetry.

I thought I’d be sure to like any writer named Crane. I have always liked the poetry of Stephen Crane and the drawings and writings of Walter Crane. But the poetry of Hart Crane – well, suppose there had been a great deal of champagne the evening before and then the next day you started in reading something like this:

STARK MAJOR

The lover’s death, how regular With lifting spring and starker Vestiges of the sun that somehow Filter in to us before we waken.

Oh dear, oh dear! Keep it away! There it is coming nearer again. Humming behind its hat! You know I didn’t really read that; that’s just the way the words looked to me on the page. They make more sense than that, really; that’s just the way I feel today. But I’m getting all right. Pretty soon everything will come quite into focus. I’ll try again now:

THY FACE

From charged and riven stakes, O Dionysus, Thy Unmangled target smile.

O, thy unmangled target smile, O – O – whoooop, my unmangled target smile, O, o,o, o, that unmangled target smile! Oh, dear! There, I feel so much worse again. I don’t see why I can’t read the words correctly. Every time I pick up the book, though, the type on the page seems to form into thinks like

No more violets, And the year Broken into smoky panels. What woods remember now Her calls, her enthusiasms.

It’s not a question, because there’s no interrogation point. And yet it seems to be a question, and it simply breaks my whole afternoon up into smoky panels. And it induces the dangerous frame of mind that sets me to doing the same thing. I know I’m in no state; but still, we’ll entitle it "Musette"; and I’ve got a swell first line to start it off with:

MUSETTE

Let us by apples be believed; No rainy crow Jangling a heaven sparked with light Can murk the orchard more; For apples now relate, remind, Vertumnian …

The neighing night Falls to flat peace, lays gold on gray; The rose and violet shower … And this is past. Your eyes immediacies Apples incredulous of heaven.

Yes, I did that. No, that wasn’t Crane. I did that. Pretty good, eh? That wasn’t Crane. That was all that’s left of the champagne. And here’s another one too. It’s even a bit better. I call it

Rhetorical Question

A dromedary dreams all neck Peered round but patient wax impressed the die of steel … Poised on a pin-point. Dark Riddling said Paracelsus is the illusion yet Magammon will not miss the way, His house being bright.

Pretty darn deep, that one. Ha! I should say it is. A lot too deep for you, my good man. Yes, sir, that’s my riddle! Yes, sir, taradiddle! Yes, sir, that’s my riddle now!

I don’t think poetry’s much of a craft after all. There’re two poems dashed off just like that, and Crane only has about twenty-five or thirty in his volume. I could do a book in a week. And all as good as those I showed you. And Eugene O’Neill says Crane’s poems are "profound and deep-seeking." So are mine. What do you mean by saying mine are not expressions of seeking? They certainly are expressions of seeking. They certainly are deep. Why are they jokes, if this sort of thing is considered with the most intense respect by Edmund Wilson in the New Republic:

Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes

Why is that good; somebody tell me! And if it is, why is this not good? The little thing as it crawls into my head is called:

MUCKWORK

O vengeful lip that followed lashing. I had turned away; the fire engine clanged through my body yet I turned away – and then curled vengeful cracking like a whip.

I can just see those people! Can’t you just see those people! Pretty dark good too, to stick that unexpected rhyme in at the end. Pretty daring. Then, if one wants a dash of the Continong:

APPARTENANT A L’ETAT

… and in the yellow light barring the floor eyes hurdling blush-coloured flesh; thirst whispered pool, and yellow turned to crome; Of Poringland The oak uprose … Old Crome! Old Crome! That light, that tree, Those bathers … Thirst …

This is obviously an expression of acute nostalgia on the part of an exiled Briton with a rather nice taste in painting. It absolutely gets me. As to where he is when he is thinking all this – oh, well, anybody can see that he’s somewhere in Paris. I’m good, aren’t I? Really I’m extremely good. Three arresting poems in – let’s see – half an hour. And I actually feel no sense of exhaustion. No, I do assure you. In fact, I’m feeling better. And just then a splendid line boomed into my head. Listen – oh, it’s a knockout – "I smell your gas-range fears." So, let’s go. I think it must be from the poem called:

APSTLY

You nudge a cornice for I could not pursue that quenching posture if the curdled wheat ate into blonde exuberance but no no blaze of silver burnish. From the door I smell your gas-range fears.

This is a bit more difficult, but as some critic has said, I "focus on the consequences of the state of mind." In the first place, it’s quite apparent that I am walking along with some one with an inferiority complex. Who should it chance to be but Bill Apstly? He is always overcome when he sees a policeman; perhaps because he once lived up the river. So I note him crowding against a building rather abjectly, and admit that nothing could make me do the same, even if – well, here we have to go back a bit in my history. I hail from Kansas. I ran a threshing machine out there all one summer. Aptsly came to work on the same farm. I am a heavy man, of about two hundred pounds, with rather bright yellow hair. When I say "curdled" of the wheat, it is an expression of dislike, just as much so as if I said "that damned wheat" – only more poetic. So now you begin to get it. Even if work in a wheat field had destroyed my fine physique I wouldn’t go around like a scared jack rabbit. That’s what I mean to say. But poor old Apstly shows "no blaze of silver burnish," e. e.: courage. No, there he is, cowering in the doorway at the mere sight of a policeman. He exudes terror like a poisonous odor of gas. See? What? Why couldn’t I have told my story more directly? Good heavens, my dear person, this is poetry!

But that’s a pretty good story about Apstly and myself, isn’t it? I could work it up, with a bit more plot, maybe, and sell it to a magazine. No, when I called the poem "Apstly," I didn’t know about Bill then. But I do now!

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Title William Rose Benét: On Hart Crane, "Mr. Moon's Journal" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author William Rose Benét Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Mr. Moon’s Journal
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