July 21

1899 Birth of Hart Crane

What is it about poets? Their lives seem so much more troubled and eventful than ordinary mortals. Ovid dies in exile; François Villon is tortured and banished; Christopher Marlowe is stabbed to death in a bar fight; adulterous, incestuous Byron dies in a civil war; Shelley dies at sea; Thomas Chatterton and John Keats die poor and young; Christopher Smart and Ezra Pound spend years in an insane asylum; Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and John  McCrae perish in the trenches of World War I; Anne Sexton, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sylvia Plath commit suicide; Garcia Lorca is murdered; Dylan Thomas drinks himself to death. And then there is Hart Crane.

Born into a prosperous family, the son of the inventor of Life-Saver candy, Crane dropped out of high school to become a writer. He soon attracted a supportive readership — his unhappiness was not caused by an unfeeling world. Since few poets have ever managed to feed and clothe themselves from the financial rewards of their art (Rod McKuen is a dishonourable exception), he relied on handouts, generous patrons, and long-suffering friends as he laboured to complete The Great American Poem, his answer to Virgil’s Aeniad or Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.

His homosexuality, which sought relief at the hands of sailors and other rough trade, brought him beatings rather than joy. His alcoholism and belligerence as a drunk earned him a spell in a Parisian jail. Crane’s one heterosexual excursion with painter Peggy Cowley ended unhappily and soon after that period, in April 1932, clothed in his pyjamas and a top coat, he threw himself off the railing of a ship on the Atlantic. His last words were “Goodbye, everybody!”

My favourite poem of this unhappy fellow is “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”.

There are no stars tonight

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,

Elizabeth,

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.

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