Sunday, July 29, 2007

The End of the 20s (Part 2)

Wednesday and Thursday: Hart Crane vs. Harold Bloom and R.P. Blackmur
I took two days for Hart Crane, because I was determined that this time I was going to learn to like him. Without quite knowing why, I've never quite gotten the big deal about Crane; even Angus Fletcher couldn't convert me, and that guy is pretty persuasive, so I was more or less ready to give up on him after one final graduate-school try. That's not quite what happened, though; read on…

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that a lot of other people haven't quite decided whether they like Crane either. If most of the Modernists have clearly benefited from the influence of academic criticism, and the New Critics in particular, then Crane has probably mostly suffered. Certainly he suffers, in my opinion, from having such a pompous defender as the latter-day Harold Bloom, one of whose ubiquitous introductions adorns my copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. It begins, unpromisingly: "Born in the year 1930, the year Hart Crane published The Bridge, I never reflect on that year of my birth without also meditating on Crane's visionary epic" (xi) — I know just what you mean, I feel the same way about The Muppet Movie. Bloom (who says he's been reading Crane since the age of ten!) spends much of his introduction talking not about Crane but about his critical reception, including (of course) Bloom's own late, heroic intervention in that reception, a story which allows him to do a lot of name-dropping about how he convinced Empson and Kenneth Burke to like Crane after all.

For all his trademark windbaggery, though, Bloom does put his finger on the big historical problem with Crane: as the one Modernist who openly embraces the heritage of Romantic-era American poetry — running from Whitman through Dickinson — he is easily detachable from the master-narrative of early 20th century literary history, which states that the important Modernists either rebelled against Romanticism or repressed it. Of course, this same apostasy makes him perfect for Bloom's counter-canon, which essentially regards Modernism as an enormous distraction from the genuine series of strong American poets, which goes (say it with me now) Emerson-Whitman-Dickinson-Stevens-Crane-Ashbery. Seen in this light, Crane is either everything or nothing: either the one visionary Romantic who saw through Modernism's revisionist narrative (Bloom's take), or an ambitious also-ran who failed to get with the program of the moment, to his work's and reputation's detriment (R.P. Blackmur pretty much sums it up when he attributes to Crane's work "the distraught but exciting splendor of a great failure," 316).

Both schools of criticism deal with Crane by treating him as an exception, and this seems unfair, because in the end Crane's not so radically (or conservatively) different from his Modernist compeers: he's clearly read a lot of the same books (White Buildings has epigraphs from Rimbaud and Ben Jonson); has the same love/hate relationship to democratic institutions and popular culture; in fact, on the evidence of The Bridge, he would've been a better standard-bearer for early Eliotic critical values than Eliot himself ultimately became.

What he is is slightly belated, in much the same way as Cummings: that is, his work emerges first into a climate of criticism founded on essentially the same tenets in which he himself believed. Presumably poets like Pound, Eliot, Moore and Williams gained something from bringing their work first in an atmosphere of general incomprehension: it allowed them to experiment more recklessly, and to exhibit a wider range of quality and "neatness of finish" (to borrow a borrowed phrase from Marianne Moore). They didn't have to worry about producing perfect poems, because there was no clear standard of perfection: the criteria to judge their poetry didn't yet exist. It's no wonder, then, that in some cases (notably the case of Eliot) their reputations would swell to gigantic sizes: such overcompensation was necessary to counteract the assumed prevailing hostility, whether it really existed or not. (This is, naturally, the story of postmodernism as well, as it was advocated for by cheerleaders like Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff. Thank you for allowing me a Jim Longenbach moment.)

By the time the likes of Blackmur and Burke were writing, though, Modernism had Modernist critics to contend with, critics eager to do something with their criteria besides enshrine new demi-gods. Thus poets who began publishing after 1922, lacking sufficient time to gain the prestige of incomprehensibility, were at a serious critical disadvantage. You can sense the passion which Blackmur brings to demonstrating that Crane is almost, but not quite, a great poet; he mercilessly picks apart Crane's obscurities in order to judge whether or not they are earned, and you can't help but feel that if he were to apply these same tests to many of his beloved Stevens' lines, he'd be forced to reach the same conclusions. (In this criticism of small differences you can really see the influence of Blackmur on his student Michael Fried: compare the famous ending of his 1968 attack on minimalism, "Art and Objecthood.")

So, in short, I think the problem is not so much that Crane was "a High Romantic in the era of High Modernism" (which is how Bloom puts it) as that he was a High Modernist in the era of High Modernism. He had the disadvantage to be writing in a period when, to some degree anyway, Modernism had become the norm: when the burden was not on the critics to find some redeeming value in the work of les jeunes but on the poets to measure up to the established recent canon. Many of Crane's poems, interestingly, include anxious references to books or pages, a habit he may have picked up from Mallarmé but which also places him as a reader of Modernism and not simply a writer of it, and which may bespeak a fear of close reading that his immediate predecessors didn't have to suffer (they were presumably more worried about being read at all). Examples include "Possessions" with its "page whose blind sun finally burns / Record of rage and partial appetites"; "Passage" which seems to meditate on some obscure connection between plagiarism ("my stolen book in hand") and self-plagiarism ("Memory, committed to the page had broke"); and the "scattered chapter" Crane tries to recover "At Melville's Tomb." (He also writes quite a lot about "hair," here and in The Bridge; not sure what to make of that.)

All that said, I think I basically agree with Blackmur that most of Crane's short lyrics in White Buildings don't really come off, though there are extraordinary lines in almost all of them. (Bloom would probably tell me to shut up and come back when I've read more Shelley.) The Bridge, though, is another story. I'm not sure that I've read the entire thing before, and on this reading I finally see why Crane's reputation rests on it: it really is one of the great long poems of the 20s. Blackmur's major criticism of it is that "Crane had the sensibility typical of Baudelaire and so misunderstood himself that he attempted to write The Bridge as if he had the sensibility typical of Whitman" (303-304); that is, he was a natural representative of "the school of tortured sensibility" writing in the affirmative heroic/patriotic mode of "Song of Myself." I wouldn't say Blackmur's wrong, but I would contend that this unlikely cross between Baudelaire and Whitman is exactly what's interesting about The Bridge. But of course I would say that, because in many ways it looks forward to what the New York School poets would eventually be doing: Frank O'Hara in particular, who absolutely insists on a productive tension between poétè maudit-esque "tortured sensibility" and Whitmanian democratic grandeur. (This was kinda, sorta what I wrote about in my paper on O'Hara for Jeremy's class; Jeremy, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I didn't make this clearer at the time.) A fuller reading of Crane's poem will have to wait until I have some more time on my hands, but let me just remind myself to consider it alongside O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings" some day — I think the contrast would be revealing.

Winner: Crane!