In last week’s Modernist Monday, we hit the ground running with one of the most notable Modernists, F. Scott Fitzgerald. This week I’d like to dial it down a bit and present the lesser know, but still vital, Modernist poet Hart Crane.
Hart Crane is an interesting fellow in poetic history; among certain circles he is a titan, bringing forth one of the closest approximations of an American Epic in The Bridge, while on the other hand he is largely unknown to wider audiences. While it’s true that his poems lack the intellectual depths of some of his Modernist peers (such as TS Eliot or Marianne Moore) the emotional honesty of his work and his way with language certainly afford him a place among the greats.
I think the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered, at least in part, and I believe I am a little changed – not essentially, but changed and transubstantiated as anyone is who has asked a question and been answered. – Crane in a letter to Waldo Frank
Born in Cleveland in 1899, Crane lived a somewhat restless life in his short 33 years. Bouncing between Cleveland, New York, Paris, and Mexico, Crane seemed to be constantly searching for some sort of identity. As a gay man in an America that was largely hostility towards homosexuality, Hart Crane spent his life trying to find a place where he fit. With the exception of a short lived, but emotionally charged relationship with Emil Opffer, Crane never seemed to find another person with which to anchor himself to. In 1932, while on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, Crane jumped to his death. Crane lived a short and somewhat tragic life, yet his poems show an unbridled optimism and a constant hope for something better.
It’s in his work that his optimism and love for life lives on. From the sprawling Bridge poems to his intimate portrayal of his time with Emil in Voyages, Crane constantly saw the best of the world around him. For me personally, those traits come through no better than in “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” Subtle and to the point, Crane’s lilting language gets to the heart of so much: love, age, and how some things can carry on no matter the distance of time or space.
My Grandmother’s Love Letters
There are no stars to-night
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.