For years, I’ve been mesmerized by Hart Crane’s poetry as dazzling verbal displays that suggest stories lurking within their densities but always favor ecstatic language over explaining what’s going on. To read his poems aloud is to hear jazz pouring out your mouth. Allen Ginsberg later aimed for the same in “Howl,” though his poem is easier to understand. (James Franco, who played Ginsberg in “Howl” is now making a movie about Crane. Here’s hoping!) Both took Walt Whitman as their forefather in creating an expansive poetry thick with spirituality and democratic brotherhood meant to transform our country. But if Crane’s poems were difficult, his letters were easy and infectious, almost frolicking with casual brilliance. The guy could write. I’ve been fascinated by Crane, in part, because he spent some of the happiest episodes of his life on long escapes from his troubled Manhattan efforts at a career by visiting the rustic Bohemian enclaves of Woodstock and Pawling in the 1920s, the two communities that have been at the center of my own upstate life these past thirty years.
Now I’m caught up in the brand new annotated edition of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” edited by Lawrence Kramer, a godsend that’s explaining what’s going on. As I suspected, Crane wasn’t indulging in abstract word spinning; he knew exactly what we was saying. I just didn’t know enough to understand him. Now I’m enjoying one “Ah-ha!” after another. I particularly appreciated this footnote by Kramer for it adds to my collection of river impressions. Crane lived for a time in a Brooklyn apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, his muse and icon.
“Crane wrote to his mother on February 10, 1925: ‘I haven’t had 6 hours of solid sleep for three nights, what with the bedlam of bells, grunts, whistles, screams and groans of all the river and harbor buoys, which have kept up an incessant grinding program as noisome as the midnight passing into new year. Just like the mouth of hell, not being able to see six feet from the window and yet hearing all the weird jargon constantly.’ An earlier letter (November 16, 1924) supplies the contrary: ‘All night long there were distant tinglings, buoy bells and siren warnings from river craft. It was like wakening into dream-land in the early dawn—one wondered where one was with only a milky light in the window and that vague music from a hidden world.”