Brain Pickings

Tennessee Williams Reads Two Stirring Poems by Hart Crane

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Bringing to life one of literary history’s most tragic yet influential heroes.

Hart Crane is celebrated as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, his style of expressionistic optimism heavily inspired by the work of T. S. Eliot. Yet Crane is also one of literary history’s most tragic heroes. Grappling with his homosexuality in an era when assurance that it gets better was decades away, he took his own life at the age of 32 by jumping overboard into the Gulf of Mexico in 1932 after being beaten for making sexual advances to a male crew member aboard the Orizaba steamship. His body was never recovered but his legacy endures.

Hardly can anyone make Crane’s spirit spring alive more powerfully than beloved playwright Tennessee Williams, who fell in love with Crane’s poetry at a young age and who in the last years of his life created a play based on Crane’s relationship with his mother. In these beautiful recordings from the vinyl LP Tennessee Williams Reads Hart Crane, Williams brings to life two of Crane’s most stirring poems, found in The Complete Poems of Hart Crane (public library).

In “The Hurricane,” Hart applies his rhythmic neo-Elizabethan verse to the fury of nature against man — and, one can’t help but wonder, perhaps his own fury against himself.

THE HURRICANE

Lo, Lord, Thou ridest!
Lord, Lord, Thy swifting heart
Nought stayeth, nought now bideth
But’s smithereened apart!
Ay! Scripture flee’th stone!
Milk-bright, Thy chisel wind
Rescindeth flesh from bone
To quivering whittlings thinned –
Swept, whistling straw! Battered,
Lord, e’en boulders now outleap
Rock sockets, levin-lathered!
Nor, Lord, may worm outdeep
Thy drum’s gambade, its plunge abscond!
Lord God, while summits crashing
Whip sea-kelp screaming on blond
Sky-seethe, dense heaven dashing –
Thou ridest to the door, Lord!
Thou bidest wall nor floor, Lord!

“The Broken Tower,” one of his last published poems, was sparked by his only heterosexual affair, that with Peggy Cowley, the recently divorced Mrs. Malcolm Cowley. Crane, nonetheless, remained inconsolable in his discomfort with his true sexuality.

THE BROKEN TOWER

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day — to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping —
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope — cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) — or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power? —

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) — but slip
Of pebbles, — visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane are a treasure trove and an essential time-capsule of literary legacy.

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