Why Hart Crane, More Than John Ashbery or Wallace Stevens, is the Legitimate Heir of Walt Whitman
I think as we began to enter into the 21st century, and into the arts at that time, that we began to have very different and complicated feelings about the relationship between irony and sincerity, or forms of thought and forms of feeling. On the one hand, we were bequeathed with modernist works like Wallace Stevens' or T.S. Eliot's that focused predominantly - although Stevens had a greater comic spirit than Eliot, and for that reason, among others, a far greater range - on a sort of somberness, be it the austere bleakness of "The Auroras of Autumn" or the, for my money, much thinner pietistic wrangling of Four Quartets, where a kind of desperation grips towards something Christian that neither consoles nor produces a poetry robust enough to compete with Stevens in his late phase. Meanwhile in works by Marianne Moore, for example, we find both an ekphrastic tendency that is both brilliant, hard, and earned, that burnishes in the sun and opens avenues and opportunities for some of the greatest poets of the 20th century, like May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Amy Clampitt.
In the works of the latter four poets, we find a comic spirit less grand and more quiet, even as the consciousness of the poems by these poets is as large and capacious and powerful and beautiful as anything written by Stevens or Eliot, although Moore, Swenson, Bishop, and Clampitt write in a different key, and so the comparison is important but perhaps slightly misguided.
One of the hardest things to figure out, as a critic of poetry, is how Hart Crane fits into this picture, and therefore how we think about things like sentimentality and irony in a 20th century picture of poetry that struggles mightily with making sense of his achievement. It is not too much of a stretch to say that Hart Crane is the greatest American poet after Whitman, and that his poems are more powerful even than Ashbery or Stevens', that they evidence a ruggedness, a form of revelation, and something unspeakable and tragic that no American poet after Whitman has even approached remotely, not Jay Wright, not Thylias Moss, not James Merrill, and not A.R. Ammons. Hart Crane is the singular figure in American poetry after Whitman (and Dickinson), and it is because he is so unique, and because he cannot be fit into neat pictures of American poetry, that we struggle to this day with even beginning to speak about his achievement and the tragic grandeur and nobility of his work.
We do not invoke nobility enough in poetry. We lived during an age that used terms like "postmodernism" without even really knowing what these terms meant, and we started to interpret irony as something completely disconnected from the actual meaning of it. Irony became desiccated, an excuse for people not to take responsibility for their lives, to laugh at anything with a heart, and to boast of one's own callousness as if this was an achievement. No one was reading Cervantes, or Shakespeare, or Montaigne, where we find degrees of irony that would balk at postmodernism's flaunting of its own sickness, while showing work that is more powerful, more subtle, more discerning, more sophisticated, more consoling, more human, than anything by David Foster Wallace or God knows who else.
Postmodernim is therefore an aesthetic movement that made a virtue of the avoidance of tragedy, or that tried to show us unhealthy ways of dealing with tragedy while passing this off as some kind of stoic faddish show off story. And for the life of me I cannot think of any works of art that fit the description of whatever postmodernism means, nor do I wish to. Ashbery does not fit into that framework, and neither does Merrill or Wright or Ammons, meaning it is an empty framework that academics used to focus on bits and pieces of works of art while completely missing the big picture all the time and proving once again that there has been an endemic tone-deafness in English departments and academia since evaluation was forsaken and people did not understand the anxiety of influence. Poetasters latched on to postmodernism as an excuse for thinking in shoddy ways about the imagination, which itself was probably considered another construct, another thing to "deconstruct," and a kind of goodness was lost, something about imaginative literature that speaks to children just as much as adults. When adults are beginning to speak in jargon, be it Marxist or Derridean or what have you, and these adults are supposed to be working in the field of literature, one encounters an irony that is frightening and baffling if perhaps not disappointingly and dispiritedly unsurprising. When a tone-deafness has replaced any attempts at being creative or imaginative - when adults speak a language that would make a child laugh - then it's time to re-evaluate what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
When one then considers this nattering, in the context of a poet like Hart Crane, then the nattering becomes something else entirely. One thinks of Bob Dylan's lyrics in "Soon After Midnight," "they chirp and they chatter, what does it matter, they lie and dine in their blood, Two-timing Slim, who's ever heard of him, I"ll drag his corpse through the mud." There are tragedies like the Shoah, or slavery, that beggar the imagination, and imaginative works are written to make sense of tragedy, to transfuse them through the spirit of the imagination; and when we place these works, like Shakespeare's or Whitman's or Crane's next to these nattering academics and poets, our perspective shifts, and the entire literary world seems like a bauble of egos competing viciously for one more piece of bread, one territory they can piss on and make their own, while the dogs go on with their doggy lives and the torturer's house scratches its innocent behind on a tree, with a nod to Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts.
Perhaps this is one reason why no one is able to write about Hart Crane in any interesting way that takes into account in an adult way the tragedy of his art and the way in which it does not fit into any framework we have about American poetry. There is no framework for Hart Crane's suicide, and if we try to find one we butt ourselves up against a wall. It is not something we should try to make sense of, but if we feel we need to, then we need to tread lightly, since thinking about these matters has enormous aesthetic and ethical implications for poetry and art, and therefore for younger generations of poets and artists.
Why did Hart Crane commit suicide? Why do people commit suicide? They do it because there is a loneliness in them that is never assuaged, and because they discover a kind of peerlessness in the world that exacerbates rather than relieves this horrifying sense of aloneness. Concomitant with this is a bafflement that borders on the murderous, at the total callous obliviousness of people, the daily cruelties they impose on the more vulnerable and fragile, and the manner in which things like wealth, or narcissism, are covers for the worst forms of abuse which are, and have been, tacitly allowed since the dawn of humankind. Samuel Johnson wrote a long poem called "The Vanity of Human Wishes," and that's what I'm getting at here: a kind of total moral bankruptcy, where rapists go off scott-free, where women and children are murdered because egos in government want to show off their idiotic "prowess," where entire civilizations are murdered because people refuse to confront their trauma and think for themselves, and where a pair of beige pants with a name stamped on it is more valued than a literal human life.
Crane was a kid from Ohio that never stopped dreaming. There was a ranginess inside him, I'm sure of it, that found a voice in the violent restlessness of the Romantic poets, in the presence of Whitman as a kind of plainspoken grace that could help one make sense of one's life, one's vocation, and the spirit of one's country and culture, and in the works of Shakespeare that carried no limit. Yet he was the most unprecedented, or least likely - the greatest underdog, and for that reason one of the greatest poets - to become the more legitimate heir of Walt Whitman, more even than Ashbery or Stevens. Why?
I think at the end of the day it is the ruggedness of his consciousness, which is more powerful than Ashbery's, and carries a level of tragic intensity that Ashbery's work does not. Stevens moves into a bleakness, but Crane is like an actually successful Confessional poet, without having to talk about his life at all, while all the rest of the Confessional poets fail, or write lesser poems than Ashbery or Stevens and that company. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and John Berryman wrote poetry and committed suicide, and the latter is not premised on the former or vice versa, but I suppose if we want to place Crane in this company, we find a poet who did both but whose poetry is far superior. Crane suffered as much as them, but was more mature than them. He does not belong in their company, and there is a tenderness and poignancy in his work, along with a vision so startling and terrifying that one does not survive even reading it without a long history of reading beforehand, that makes a mockery, a sputum, a dredge of black murk, to the works of these "confessional poets," whose names should not even be mentioned, in regards to poetry, along with Crane's, if we are speaking of matters related to poetry and suicide. Crane belongs - if we are talking about classes of students, for example - with Whitman and Milton and Dante and Homer. He has that much intensity, and that much morality, and that much fearful fearless splendor.