Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reading Hart

No one who read The Bridge with us a year ago will be surprised by the linguistic difficulty of Hart Crane's "Voyages". Crane was early and notoriously difficult. In a public letter to Harriet Monroe that was published in the October, 1926 issue of Poetry together with his poem "At Melville's Tomb", he answered some of her earlier editorial queries about his language.

You ask me how a portent can possibly be wound in a shell … I ask you how Blake could possibly say that "a sigh is a sword of an Angel King." You ask me how compass, quadrant and sextant "contrive" tides. I ask you how Eliot can possibly believe that "Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum!"

What distinguishes Crane's practice and make his reading so hard (and so poetic) is that he usually dispenses with the subject of the metaphor (the "tenor") and simply launches us off into the associated image or idea (the "vehicle"). So whether a street lamp is ever like a drum or a sigh like a sword we know what drums and swords are being compared to. In Crane we get portents "wound in corridors of shells" and and compasses, quadrants and sextants "contrive[ing] no farther tides." Good luck guessing what those portents and compasses are comparisons of!

In his "General Aims and Theories" (unpublished in his lifetime) Crane explicates the "dynamics of inferential mention" in his "logic of metaphors":

[W]hen, in "Voyages" (II), I speak of "adagios of islands," the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motions, etc.

—something I doubt would have ever occurred to me unaided. And I'm still in some need to understand how this leisurely sailing-by can "complete the dark confessions [which ocean's] veins spell." So this post is a plea for everyone to put on his free-association caps. I'm not suggesting that any reading could be right but conceivably a large number of readings might not be wrong.

Fortunately what makes "Voyages" more accessible than The Bridge, aside from its length, is its clear and familiar theme, that of a love affair, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The homosexuality of that love affair is far from incidental and makes the sequence that much more interesting, even vital, to us. It is arguably the greatest poem on that theme. The middle, I must confess—the crisis and turning point of that affair—, remains something of a muddle to me and I look forward to the insights other readers may bring. I'm unsure even how to parse the first three lines of the fourth stanza. I'd hate to have to diagram them (much more discover their tenors or divine their meaning). I'll let them conclude this post:

Whose counted smile of hours and days, suppose
I know as spectrum of the sea and pledge
Vastly now parting gulf on gulf of wings

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