Poet on the Edge

The Broken Towerby Paul MarianiW. W. Norton. 492 p $35.00

When the poet Hart Crane jumped from a ship to his death in the waters of the Caribbean on an April morning in 1932, alarmed crewmembers threw life preservers into the water after him. Their rescue effort was not only futile but also ironic, since Crane’s father had invented the Life Saver candy, which displayed on its wrapper the image of a sailor saving a young person in distress. Crane bitterly blamed his father for not using his wealth to deliver him from a life of bleak, mind-numbing jobs.

Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane deftly recounts the influences that contributed to Crane’s decision to end his life at the age of 32, a choice that deprived the American literary scene of one of its most committed, if tormented, talents. Mariani brings substantial gifts and background to this work, having previously written biographies of Robert Lowell, John Berryman and William Carlos Williams. He opens broad vistas upon the biographical and cultural influences that shaped Crane’s intensely committed and conflicted poetic life.

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Harold Hart Crane was born in 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, and grew up with intense longings for durable friendship, apparently seeking what was so obviously missing from his parents’ own volatile relationship. Their stormy marriage foundered early on, leaving a legacy of stress and strain that prompted the young man to take refuge in literature and music. Crane wrote to a friend, "You may not think it, yet there comes a great peaceful exaltation in merely reading, thinking, and writing." Yet this was not enough to ward off sporadic spells of intense depression; he first attempted suicide at the age of 15 by slashing his wrists and taking an overdose of sleep medication.

Crane dropped out of high school and worked until he had enough money to move to New York, the city that would serve as his lifelong muse. Crane found the city "crowded with life, packed with movement and drama" and he drenched himself in urban sensations, while holding himself to a high standard of precise abstractions in his poetry. He viewed New York with a Whitmanesque appreciation, although he later perceived the city in Dantean terms as well, referring to it as a Babylon. It was an intoxicating place for him in every way, and it also allowed him abundant freedom to explore his homosexual identity.

With The Broken Tower in one hand, and a volume of Crane’s collected poetry in the other, one grows in appreciation and understanding of Crane’s important achievements, particularly "The Bridge," his 1930 long poem that Crane conceived of as a "mystical synthesis" of America, a symphonic collection of poems joining historical figures such as Columbus and Pocahantas with modern figures of alienation reminiscent of Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Mariani also includes occasional prose riffs that seek to convey Crane’s thoughts and feelings. This reconstructed stream of consciousness gives the reader a factually based glimpse into the interior workings of a complex writer. Mariani brings alive the doubts and self-recriminations that constantly bedeviled Crane and the accusatorial inner voices that must have haunted him during his frequent hangovers. Alcohol and depression exacted a truly terrible physical and emotional toll on Crane, and his hair turned from premature gray to white by the age of 28. He was frequently jailed or beaten for his drinking, and Mariani’s index lists 17 instances of Crane’s "outrageous and violent behavior" due to alcohol. He embarrassed himself, alienated friends and damaged his ability to concentrate on his writing, but Mariani notes, "Like [Charlie] Chaplin, he meant to pick himself up, brush himself off, and go on whistling into the teeth of fate."

Relatively late in his career Crane discovered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and recognized in the Jesuit poet a kindred spirit who demonstrated that poetry could aspire to "a transfiguration into pure musical notation." In "The Harbor Dawn" Crane describes a sunrise in sonorous language:

 The window goes blond slowly.
Frostily clears.
From Cyclopean towers across
Manhattan waters
Twothree bright window-eyes
aglitter, disk
The sun, releasedaloft with cold
gulls hither.

Like Hopkins, Crane sought an epiphanic vision, and Mariani notes, "In spite of the absence of any God he can name, there is a desperate vulnerability about Crane’s prayer for meaning" in poems such as "O Carib Isle!"

Crane once signed a postcard to his mother with the name "Atlantis." As Mariani notes, "Even to himself he seemed a lost city." The symbolism was confirmed in his suicide by drowning. Although his body was never found, he provided an epitaph of sorts in "Emblems of Conduct":

The wanderer later chose this spot
of rest
Where marble clouds support the
sea
And where he was finally borne
a chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke
were past.
Dolphins still played, arching
the horizons,
But only to build memories of
spiritual gates.

Mariani leaves us with the tragic image of a brilliant mind struggling with the desire to push the borders of poetry beyond the familiar and traditional to "new thresholds, new anatomies," all the while contending with interior realities that were the source of both his greatest inspiration and his greatest unhappiness. Although Crane sank beyond the reach of lifesavers, thanks to Mariani’s book we retain a strong sense of the spiritual gates this poet sought to enter.

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