Some Words of Hart Crane

Updated: Jul 24


It’s a mysterious process, how a poem starts and grows, what makes it take root, why this and not that.  And the writing, the building-up or building-down, from these words or those, to those finished quatrains or these couplets, to something free-form, or to some mix of all of them, all those choices guided by the inspired hand of—well, of something, art, God, intuition, “the wind that blows through me,” who knows its name?  In the end, we as writers or readers may not know exactly what happened, only that something happened, because the evidence is there before us, in the finished poem on the bounded white space of the page (or not so finished:  the poem, as Paul Valery says, is never finished, only abandoned).  


By Source, Fair use,

What we don’t see so much is the start, the ur-moment, the angelic troubled mix that takes place in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  I want to talk in this essay about that process, and its costs, and about the instigation, those shards and beginnings that begin the magic, that somehow start or inspire the poem into motion.  Some of these instigators are humble, a few unsuspected words perhaps, a surprising rhythm found or heard somewhere, a haunted traction, that may lay around for days or months even years, waiting its moment to launch the journey into the dark place, to bring back the gold that, in Ezra Pound’s wonderful phrase, “gathers the light about it.” 

We have a record of the hot externals of that process of creation for one poet, Hart Crane, a poet for whom the inspired moment of composition seemed to whose who witnessed it an ecstatic Dionysian plunge, the poet obliterating all consciousness of his surroundings as he retreated to some inner place to write—but what was seen by the witnesses was only in fact half-seen, for it was actually preceded by months of waiting for the right compositional moment, and then was followed by more months of hard private labor.  The compositional moment, the lightning strike, was the important point in the process where the bits collected so painstakingly over weeks and months came finally together, and it could occur anywhere, at any time, often for Crane under copious inducements of alcohol, or anyway of some extreme condition; but it was not the final and perhaps not even the definitive moment.  


Here’s how it would have looked had you been there:  Imagine that it’s the mid-1920’s and you’re an artist at a party with friends, all themselves New York City-based artists and art-interested types, away from your digs in Greenwich Village, out in the country for the summer, in Patterson, NY, just over the line from Connecticut.  You’re all staying in an old farmhouse for $10 a month,