Harold Hart Crane ("Hart" was his mother’s maiden name) was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, near Cleveland in 1899 and committed suicide by leaping from the deck of the S. S. Orizaba somewhere off the Florida coast just before noon on April 26, 1932.
His education was informal. He never completed his final year of high school, but at the age of 17 persuaded his recently-divorced parents to let him live in New York City to prepare for college. From 1917 to 1924, he shifted back and forth between Cleveland and New York, briefly working in Cleveland as a cub reporter, but more often as a menial in his father’s candy factory, and in New York as a copywriter for mail order catalogues and advertising agencies. He lived an unsettled life, in and out of apartments and rooms in New York City, and in southern Connecticut sharing farmhouses with friends. Most of the poems in The Bridge – many of them depicting New York City with a vibrancy that was rare in poetry – were written on the Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba where his family owned a vacation cottage. When he found himself unable to complete The Bridge, he sought inspiration by traveling to Europe, and when he was awarded a Guggenheim in 1931, he temporarily settled in Mexico.
Crane was sensitive to the problem of uprootedness. This became a subject in his own poetry: the history in his American epic centers primarily on various technological breakthroughs – clipper ship, train, subway, airplane – that, he might have said, create an illusion of conquering space by speeding up the consumption of time. But the issue was more personal; it stemmed from his position as a gay male in a culture that was largely homophobic. He understood that he was a homosexual after an affair in 1919 in Akron, Ohio, where he was employed as a clerk in one of his father’s candy stores. In the spring of 1924, he met Emil Opffer, a ship’s purser. With him, an emotional relationship developed in which Crane was intensely engaged. (The six poems entitled Voyages were fashioned as an extraordinary souvenir of their temporary union.) Crane never found a single partner with whom to share his life, and after Opffer, he may have felt such a partner could never be found. His affairs were temporary, mostly anonymous, and sometimes violent; he apparently never sought out sexual companionship among members of the New York artistic community. Late in his brief life, when living in Mexico in 1931 and 1932, he entered into a heterosexual liaison with Peggy Baird, the former wife of a close friend, Malcolm Cowley. With her, there had been discussion of marriage and a new beginning.
All in all, Crane lived a tumultuous life, a life reflected in what one critic disparagingly called his "Rube Goldberg rhetoric." Maturing in a time when an astonishing range of poetic styles were competing with each other for ascendancy, Crane as an apprentice poet seems to have sampled one and all. The early poems that open his first collection, White Buildings (1926), are a veritable taxonomy of the options open to a young poet eager to learn to write in a modern style. There is the Eliotic ennui of "Modern Craft," and the sumptuous imagism of "October-November." Gusto of a Poundian sort breaks out from the solemn quatrains of "Praise for an Urn" and the children in "Poster" (the opening of "Voyages I") step out of a Wallace Stevens seascape. Unpublished poems from the same time expose imitations of E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams. Crane forged his own unbelievably idiosyncratic style out of an impossible melange of influences, making the very negotiation of potentially-divisive conflicting registers the astonishing tightrope-walk of the poem.
According to Lincoln Kirstein, E. E. Cummings claimed that "Crane’s mind was no bigger than a pin, but it didn’t matter; he was a born poet." Crane’s mature poetry was written over a meteorically-brief period, from the spring of 1924 until the fall of 1926, and it was intensely performative. If it was short on intellectual conception, it was long on linguistic feats that sought to duplicate an experience as it was unfolding. If Crane had attempted only to be celebratory, he would have endured, perhaps, as a minor poet, an American Swinburne. But Crane also came of age at a time when poets found themselves thinking as critics, extending the range of their own poetry to include "unpoetic" analytical meditations. Some of his closest friends were the young men who would go on to invent the new criticism – Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Burke – all of whom saw themselves, in those early years of their lives, first as poets. Crane’s letters are filled with remarkably astute observations about what might be possible in the future for poetry, and in an exchange with Harriet Monroe, he mounted a strong defense of one of his own works, "At Melville’s Tomb," detailing what he called a "logic of metaphor" that was unfolding within and below the poem’s linguistic surface, as a product of the interplay of the connotations of words. Few other poets, in 1925, could have been so eloquent about what they hoped to achieve. In his mature style, in works such as Voyages, "The Wine Menagerie," "O Carib Isle!," and (from The Bridge) "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge," "The Harbor Dawn," "Cutty Sark," and "The Tunnel," Crane masterfully uses variations in rhythm and syntax to establish a powerful, nearly invisible foundation that provides a dynamic forward movement to a poetic line that is bristling with significance, its diction drawn from virtually dozens of conflicting and overlapping registers.
Like other young poets, Crane admired what Eliot had achieved by broadening the scope of what could be treated within a poem, but he deplored what he saw as Eliot’s pessimism. Soon after "The Waste Land" appeared in 1922, Crane wrote his own response, the naīve and jejune "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" (1923). Something more was needed, and Crane embarked on a plan to write an extended poem, a symphonic epic, that would be a "mystic synthesis of America." Eliot took a stand against the present, it seemed to Crane. By contrast, Crane’s poem would properly evaluate the machine, locating a place for it in the present, judging both its good and bad elements. But the poem stalled. Crane had written its final section, a celebration of the exalted feelings the poet was experiencing as he looked over the modern city and found it transformed by the sensational new descriptions that had emanated from his poems – none of which, with the exception of this congratulatory finale, he had yet conceived how to write. Meanwhile, as he pondered how to write the individual sections that would justify his optimistic finale, Crane worked through shorter pieces, occasioned by incidents in his life, each of which took him further toward creating a style that aimed to synthesize with accuracy unusually complex states of thought. In his 1947 preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson expressed regret at not focusing more attention on the last "type," "the poetry of straightforward mental conflict": "I had not read Hart Crane when I published the book, and I had had the chance to do so." As Empson suggests, Crane tracked with a completeness heretofore inconceivable even minute gradations in experience, both intellectual and emotional at once. In "The Wine Menagerie," he is capable of registering a simultaneous pull toward and resistance to a particular event. Voyages ends in a bittersweet valedictory that both offers and resists closure, that understands that a love affair is over even as it affirms the affair will never be forgotten.
As Crane postponed work on his epic poem and composed these new lyrics, rather than resolving his problems with The Bridge he only exacerbated them: the new technical achievement he was developing outstripped his plans for what he thought to include in the subject-matter in his epic of America. When a loan from the financier Otto Kahn (whose own son, Roger Wolfe Kahn, had achieved his fame by leading one of the most successful dance bands of the 1920s) freed Crane to work entirely on his long poem, nothing in the rather conventional outline he had developed spurred him on to write. In his 1925 autobiographical poem "Passage" the speaker at one point returned to a territory (that may have represented an earlier point in his life) only to find the site almost unrecognizably overtaken with wildly proliferating growth. Something similar must have seemed to be happening to him when he turned back to The Bridge. To write the lyrics of emotional and intellectual intensity of 1924 and 1925, he had developed an approach that so completely outstripped his plans for the American epic that, in effect, he had superseded his work before he had been able to get it underway. Crane set out to write a chronological exploration of America in which the poem opened with Columbus, proceeded to the crisis of the Civil War, and brought us to the present with the example of the subway. This was the burdensome plot that failed to ignite his interest in the winter and spring of 1926. That structure remains obscurely in place in the final work, but it is almost certainly the least important aspect of the poem.
What allowed Crane to begin The Bridge was a complete change of scene, a shift to the Isle of Pines in the Caribbean. Left to himself, Crane at first lapsed into melancholy and despair. To cultural critic Waldo Frank, one of a number of father-surrogates to whom Crane looked for guidance and whom he used to construct points of stability in his life, he wrote an eloquent explanation of why The Bridge was no longer possible to write (see his June 20, 1926, letter). Few poets have exposed the prospects of the modern epic to so withering a critique. But having thoroughly internalized all the reasons why a modern epic is impossible, Crane shortly thereafter began to write, with a fluency that was entirely new to him, the poems that would together make up more than two-thirds of The Bridge. Like his earlier lyrics, they rise out of a divided state of mind. By understanding the unlikelihood of his project, Crane (no doubt inadvertantly) constructed a basis upon which to begin it: the very point of the poem was that it was needed, that it did not yet exist, that it was to be sought for, an act of postulation.
The Promenade over the Brooklyn Bridge, New York, opened 1883. John and Washington Roebling. Corbis-Bettmann, photo c. 1925.
Geography further impinges on these poems. On the Isle of Pines, his thoughts turned longingly to New York, to the urban space in which it was possible to pursue emotional attachments that took unconventional turns, in which the homosexual life style was more or less sheltered. As a result, many poems in The Bridge center on New York City: they convey the spaces of the modern city as few other poems have – the droning menace of the abruptly-deserted subway (in "The Tunnel"), the harsh quality of mid-day light as it is reflected off the sides of skycrapers ("Proem"), or the vistas that unexpectedly open to disclose layers of the past ("Cutty Sark"). At the same time, the poems are also encoded with elements of the gay life-style. The love that is sought in the city is left unspecified, as if it were designed to be universalized, anyone’s love. While the poem asks to be read in this way, it also suggests that love may flourish in unexpected places. When Crane positions himself under the shadows of the bridge, he is, in one sense, simply the poet of the romantic tradition, the observer who stands aside the better to see; but he is, in another sense, the gay male cruising in an area notorious for its casual sex. Even the bridge itself, the Brooklyn Bridge that is the central object of the poem, was strongly identified in Crane’s own mind with Emil Opffer, to whom Voyages was dedicated. The appearance of the bridge secretly encrypts a highly personal memory and a specific presence in the text. Crane’s "epic of America" gets underway as a personal quest, as a poem divided against itself, in devotion to an urban setting that encourages social diversity, with secret inscriptions that retain their meanings to which only a privileged few are accessible.
Crane would never again write as compellingly as he did in the summer and fall of 1926. (From the same period comes the coruscating "O Carib Isle!," a poem that conveys in concrete imagery the paralyzing effects of extreme self-consciousness.) His later contributions to The Bridge can be witty, smart, magisterial, but their primary task is to fill out a narrative, to introduce elements that turn the poem in a more conventional direction. "The River" and "Cape Hatteras" dutifully explore the role of the railroad and the airplane; they intelligently consider how each new technology dominates and effectively annihilates the environment into which it is introduced. They usefully expand the scope of the poem by moving us across a vast geography. "The River" jumps from the Dakotas to California to North Carolina before settling on its journey down the Mississippi; "Cape Hatteras" leaps from Bombay to Kitty Hawk, from the battlefields of the Civil War in Virginia to the battlefields of the Great war in the Somme. It is perhaps not an accident that a homosexual presence remains furtively on hand in both poems, in the free-ranging tramps of "the River," in the vagabond Whitman of "Cape Hatteras." For the great problem that stymied Crane after 1926 had to do with the conflict between his identity as a gay male and his identity as a poet. Numerous unpublished lyrics, most written between 1927 and 1931, attest to the struggle Crane undertook to invent a discourse that would honestly translate aspects of his homosexual experience into poetry.
Publication of The Bridge in 1930 brought Crane notoriety and fame. He had been a name to reckon with earlier. Stephen Rose Benet had parodied his work in his Saturday Review column in 1928, and Man Ray had taken his photo for Vanity Fair in 1929. Now, in 1930, he was told by Eda Lou Walton, he was being included in her New York University course in contemporary poetry. He was awarded a Guggenheim in 1931 and settled in Mexico to work on a long poem about the Aztec civilization. Little on that project was ever accomplished. In the 1920s, Crane had begun to drink heavily. Speak-easies and taverns were logical places to seek out sexual companionship. He learned early on that he could return from states of ecstasy with snatches of poetic phrasing that he could not obtain any other way. In Europe in 1929, falling in among wealthy expatriates, Crane pursued his dissolution. By 1930, friends who had not seem him for several months were expressing astonishment at his premature aging: his facial features losing sharpness and tone, his hair rapidly greying.
Though the causes for anyone’s suicide are almost certain to be multiple, in the case of Crane it seems an act unusually overdetermined. In April of 1932, he was returning to an America that was ravaged by a financial depression. His father had died in 1931, in the process revealing just how completely his once-ample resources had been depleted. He was returning to New York City, his Guggenheim fellowship over, knowing that tales of his drunken exploits in Mexico would have preceded him. His project of an "Aztec epic" had resulted in less than a handful of poems. The one serious work he had recently written (in March), "The Broken Tower," was essentially a love-poem, though it tellingly betrayed his longing for a time in the past that was intensely energetic and that now seemed unattainably remote. Friends were scattered. And Harry Crosby, who had encouraged Crane to finish The Bridge by offering to publish it in his Black Sun Press, had killed himself two years earlier. Years of drink had almost certainly ravaged his physical condition, undermining his ability to control his mental stability. His leap into the ocean must have seemed one of the few choices he had left.
Critics acted rapidly to turn Crane’s death into a lesson for other poets. They argued that his failure proved it was impossible to write a poem that was both socially engaged and aesthetically satisfying. Tate maintained that his own "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1926) was successful precisely because of the elegiac tone it adopted, mourning an ideal that was now utterly lost. A common theme among the critics reviewing Crane’s work was that the epic was impossible because modern culture lacked the very center which the epic was supposed to portray. Crane’s suicide was virtually preordained, Yvor Winters suggested, by the absence of adequate intellectual pre-commitment. What poets needed, these critics concluded, was to follow more carefully the advice of critics, and both Winters and Tate followed their own advice by more or less abandoning poetry for criticism. The cultural epic – the socially-engaged sequence composed of aesthetically self-sufficient lyrics – was pronounced obsolete. Long poems could still be written, but only by representatives of the first generation of modernism – by Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens – who were entitled to continue because of their claims as "inventors" of the form. But critics in the 1930s and 1940s warned young poets away from attempting such work.
These warnings were recorded in textbooks and dutifully taught in universities. But practicing poets were likely to be unaware of such pronouncements. A "Crane tradition" of the long poem continued after his death, though the critical discourse of the academy was designed not to recognize it. Rather than being bothered by the incompleteness of Crane’s project, poets were attracted to the idea of fulfilling it. Traces of his powerful rhetoric flash through numerous poets of the 1930s, including Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Fearing, and Edwin Rolfe. Among the poets most powerfully influenced by Crane was Melvin B. Tolson, whose Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) is, among many other things, a spectacular refutation of the claim that the political text cannot be an aesthetic triumph. The poets in the California Quarterly, the short-lived journal of the early 1950s that sought to present works that were both politically and aesthetically sophisticated, continually evoked Crane as an ideal. Lawrence Lipton’s Rainbow at Midnight (1955), a portion of which appeared in an early version in California Quarterly, pointedly invokes Crane as a figure whose absence is felt as debilitating. (Had he lived, he would have been fifty-five in the year the poem was published.) The densely-rhetorical intellectual poetry that Harry Brown offered in 1949 in The Beast in His Hunger owes as much to Crane as Robert Lowell’s early work in Lord Weary’s Castle (1947). By 1960, Lowell could describe Crane as "less limited than any other poet of his generation."
Serious re-evaluation of Crane in the university began in 1967 when R. W. B. Lewis proposed a resolution to the dilemma of Crane’s "obscurity" by invoking a visionary tradition in which clarity was not necessarily a premium. The somewhat cavalier readings of Lewis provoked several close studies. The most ground-breaking of these was completed by Thomas E. Yingling a few years before his untimely death as a victim of the AIDS epidemic, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text (1992). In the 1970s and 1980s, the rehabilitation of Crane’s reputation depended on revealing an artistry in passages that had been previously dismissed as incoherent; the newly-reconstructed Crane who emerged from such close attention was often a universalized figure. Yingling, following strong promptings in Lee Edelman’s discussion of rhetorical tropes in Crane, saw that Crane’s authority rested on his position as an outsider whose own writings were not only expressions of his own psychological division but also eloquent records of elaborate cultural and social divisions.