Hart Crane’s Hieroglyphs: The Unmentionable Truth

The lost language of Crane: I love the sound of that phrase (its resonance indebted to the David Leavitt novel title). I’m speaking of the lost language of Hart Crane, to my mind the great American poet of the 20th century, inventor of a unique ecstatic poetic language that is at once maddeningly elusive and crazily exhilarating, a language I can’t always decipher but one that always speaks to me, a haunting, cryptic poetic rhetoric, a supremely literate glossolalia, a speaking-in-tongues that registers on levels of intelligibility both deeper and more elevated than quotidian speech.

Why celebrate and seek to retrieve Hart Crane’s lost language now? In part because immersion in the highly charged language of Keats’ ode “To Autumn” (in last week’s column) sharpened my appetite for the difficult pleasures offered by the idiosyncratic speech certain great poets invent to embody the unspoken and the unspeakable. In part also because a new edition of Crane’s letters ( O My Land, My Friends ; Four Walls Eight Windows) reproduces at full length one of the most remarkable clashes in the tormented history of the relationship between literature and literary criticism-a clash over the lost language of Crane.

Do I need to introduce Hart Crane? Probably not to most readers, although I fear most know him mainly for his somewhat overblown epic poem, The Bridge, his rhapsodic tribute to the structure that links Brooklyn to Manhattan. It’s a celebration of the possibility of finding linkages, coherences, bridges between the apparently meaningless chaos, the traffic noise, of American life and the realm of poetic transcendence. It’s a poem Crane designed as a kind of “answer song” to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its despair at the fragmentary incoherences of modern existence.

But I’ve always felt that The Bridge, breathtaking as it is in places, is not the true locus of Hart Crane’s genius, that it suffers from the strains of its didactic mission. And that the pure distillation of Crane’s astonishing gift, the grammar of the lost language he invented, can be found in the collection of poems he published shortly before The Bridge; the one he called White Buildings.

There, in one astonishing poem after another-“At Melville’s Tomb,” “The Wine Menagerie,” “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” “Voyages” and all the rest-Crane created his private lexicon of ecstatic apprehension, a witchy alchemy of sound and signifier both seductive and frustrating. A language somehow teasingly just short of yielding itself up, supremely intelligent but just shy of complete intelligibility, neither opaque nor transparent, a kind of crystalline translucency. I can’t get enough of the White Buildings poems; lately “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” has possessed me, sent me back to Ben Jonson’s dazzling 17th-century play The Alchemist to trace Crane’s alchemical inspiration to its source.

But I want to focus here on “At Melville’s Tomb” since it’s the subject of that remarkable clash over poetic language I spoke of. On the surface, it is an encounter between a poet and a critic, but on a deeper level it’s the encounter between the poet and the critic within Hart Crane-one of the few illuminating instances in which a truly great poet reads, interprets and explicates himself for us. Decodes his private language.

It’s illuminating because it’s about the eternal mystery of what makes some language poetry, what makes poetry more than themes and ideas. What poetry does that prose doesn’t.

Here’s the situation: Back in 1926, Crane submitted “At Melville’s Tomb” to Harriet Monroe, editor of the influential magazine Poetry . Monroe found its language too recalcitrant, too opaque, too hieroglyphically indecipherable, but she agreed to publish it, albeit-and this is pretty amazing-along with a kind of admonitory letter from her to Crane telling him his poem was too hard to understand.

“Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader,” she begins, obviously convinced that no one could take her , august editor of Poetry , as anything of the sort. She goes on, in effect, to ask him, “What the hell are you talking about in this poem?” Attacking Crane’s key images, she asks “how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else).” She also questions how “frosted eyes” can lift “altars.”

She sounds like she believes these are questions for which there could be no good answers. Crane’s reply must have surprised and stunned her, but she was smart enough to publish it, though it appeared in a later issue.

In what still remains one of the great acts of literary criticism by a poet, Crane sent her a long letter explaining exactly how dice can bequeath an embassy, exactly how a calyx can give back a chapter, exactly how portents can be wound in corridors of shells. How in fact, his language was not unintelligible, just not intelligible to her until he explained it. But in doing so, in introducing his specific acts of explication, he also penned one of the most intelligent contemporary exemplars of the “Defense of Poetry” tradition, in which poets (like Sir Philip Sidney) have tried to explain to the literal-minded the value of poetic language. One in which Crane introduces his own notion of the power of the elided, of the unspoken key to the spoken-what he calls “the unmentioned.”

He disputes Monroe’s reductive mindset-the belief that a poem is “about” what a paraphrase of its language reduces it to, and that its language should obey the dictates of ordinary logic. He argues that poetic language is not necessarily “illogical” but rather that it pursues “another logic” in pursuit of which a poet can take “certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take.” To deny these liberties “is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.”

He cites a line from William Blake-“a sigh is a sword of an Angel King”-as one that has a power beyond pure logic. And then he tosses off a brilliant bit of explication of his respected rival Eliot, adducing the logic beneath the apparent illogic of the line in Eliot that goes, “Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum.” He asks Monroe to reconsider the apparently illogical relationship “between a drum and a street lamp-via the unmentioned throbbing of the heart and nerves in a distraught man which tacitly creates the reason and ‘logic’ of the Eliot metaphor.”

Beautiful: the unmentioned throbbing of the heart rhythmically dimming the light by means of the unmentioned pulsing of blood in the eyes. With the mention of “the unmentioned,” Crane proceeds to elucidate the unmentioned elements in his own poem that supply the esoteric logic to the images Monroe objected to. Before getting into Crane’s recovery of the Lost Language of the poem, consider something he fails to mention-or perhaps thinks so obvious that even Monroe doesn’t need to be told. As I see it, the clue to the Melville poem is the way it’s haunted by the unmentioned spirit of Ariel’s song in The Tempest, the elegy to the drowned sailor-a lyric that haunts Eliot’s Waste Land as well. The famous lines, “Full fathom five thy father lies;/ Of his bones are coral made;/ Those are pearls that were his eyes.” A painfully beautiful lyric in which death is transfigured by (into) art.

If she’d sensed this, Monroe might have had less trouble with the “dice of drowned men’s bones” bequeathing an embassy. Or as Crane patiently explains it to her in his letter: “Dice … being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seems legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver.”

Swiftly he moves on to the “calyx of death’s bounty.” And explains to Monroe that “the calyx refers in a double ironic sense both to a cornucopia and the vortex made by a sinking vessel. As soon as the water has closed over a ship, this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter so far as any complete record of the recent ship and her crew is concerned.”

And finally, frosted eyes lifting altars? “Refers simply to a conviction that a man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity … postulates a deity somehow, and [lifts] the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching.”

I found Crane’s explication of his poem a tour de force that left me satisfied, yet also longing for more. Longing for him to be my Virgil, my guide to the unmentioned depths of all his poems. It’s frustrating because he’s both demonstrated the possibility of finding the “other logic,” the lost language of his poems, and left us desolate without the Rosetta stone to his hieroglyph. One of my fantasies of the afterlife is finding and buttonholing Hart Crane and getting him to elucidate the unmentioned secrets of all his other poems. In some of them I still find myself as much at sea-although not as disapprovingly-as Harriet Monroe. (In fact we should all be grateful she had the curiosity and the temerity to draw Crane out so eloquently.) What the hell is the “tooth implicit” in “The Wine Menagerie,” for instance? The truth implicit? Help me, Hart.

Finally, there is one other unmentioned aspect of “Melville’s Tomb,” one almost unmentionable in its sadness. The sense that in it Crane was writing his own epitaph, inscribing his own tomb. Do I need to mention the fact that on April 27, 1932, Crane plunged to his death from the stern of a freighter that was carrying him back from his beloved tropics to New York? Most chose to believe his death was a deliberate suicide, although there is some ambiguity over whether it could have been a drunken fall. In a sense this poem may be the unmentioned clue to the deliberation behind Hart Crane’s death by drowning, to the moment he chose to become one of those “dead men who never completed their voyage,” as he describes the drowned sailors in “Melville’s Tomb.”

Needless to say, the poem is not set at Melville’s actual tomb-a stone slab in a cemetery in the Bronx-but rather it conceives of the vault of the ocean itself as Melville’s true resting place: “This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.” I don’t think it was an accident that Crane himself chose to end his life by burying himself in Melville’s oceanic tomb. A fabulous shadow himself, Crane’s poems became the “calyx of [his own] death’s bounty” leaving scattered chapters, livid hieroglyphs for the living to decipher. Leaving us the lonely but exhilarating task of recovering his lost language on our own.

Hart Crane’s Hieroglyphs: The Unmentionable Truth