By TOM ROBBINS
Daily News Staff Writer
First and foremost, struggling young poets need cheap apartments, and it was a friend's fortuitous tip that led Hart Crane in the summer of 1924 to the flat at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. In his room, above the harbor, Crane could hear the sounds of the river echoing up to him from below.
Beshrouded wails, far strum of fog horns, he wrote at the table pushed up against the rear window. And when he lifted his head to look out and up he saw the Gothic granite arches and soaring steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Thus was one of the city's great artistic matches made. "I am living in the shadow of that bridge," Crane wrote excitedly to his friend, the critic Waldo Frank. "There is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window ... the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan ... it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh ..."
The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, was already a touchstone for artists and writers, proof that technology could be rendered in grace and beauty. But Crane, a high school dropout from Ohio in search of a theme for a poetry about America, wanted to go even further in bestowing symbolism on its architecture. He looked out his back window the very same window, he delightedly learned years later, from which the bridge's crippled engineer, Washington Roebling, had watched the span's construction and saw the perfect metaphor for an epic poem to celebrate the nation. It was an idea he could discuss only in sweeping terms. Crane's "The Bridge" was to be a "mystical synthesis" of the country, picking up where Walt Whitman had left off, peopled by the legends of Pocahontas, Columbus and Rip Van Winkle, pulled along by wagon trains, railroads, riverboats, whaling ships and subways.
It was ambitious, but the 25-year-old poet
had already demonstrated a command of language rivaling the greats of his
era, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His biggest obstacle, his friends
agreed, was Hart Crane.
Even among the carefree New York literary set at the dawn of the Jazz Age, Crane was something of a handful. His writing methodology included wild bouts of drinking and carousing aimed at wrenching the words out of himself and onto the page. He would stomp about his flat, the Victrola cranked up loud, playing the same jazz record over and over, in search of "divine madness." More than once, he heaved his typewriter out the window in exasperation. Bursting from his apartment, he would reel down the city streets, drunkenly shouting into the night: "I am Baudelaire! I am Marlowe! I am Whitman!" Crossing the great bridge by foot, he would cruise the South St. saloons, stuffing nickels into jukeboxes and casting about for a sailor for a one-night stand.
It was a life as far from his middle-class beginnings as he could find. Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21, 1899, son of a Cleveland candy manufacturer who wanted him in the business and a domineering mother who wanted him always at her side. Rejecting both, he showed up in New York at 17, a burningly ambitious writer seated on the floor at the Greenwich Village literary salon of Margaret Anderson, publisher of The Little Review, which had recently unveiled Pound and Robert Frost. For a while, he lived in a garret on E. 16th St. and tried to make a living selling ads for poetry magazines. But finally, he was forced to return to Ohio and take a job in his father's candy factory after all.
Back in Cleveland, he produced a tenderly straightforward poem called "My Grandmother's Love Letters":
There are no stars tonight/ But those of memory, he wrote,
cautioning himself: Are your fingers long enough to play/ Old
keys that are but echoes?
Its acceptance by a literary magazine brought Crane racing back to New York. Chronically broke, he camped out in the living rooms of such downtown postwar intellectual friends as playwright Eugene O'Neill and photographer Walker Evans, regularly getting uninvited when his drinking got out of hand. Despite his inner tempests, he churned out a series of poems noted for their beauty. His first collection, "White Buildings," was published in 1926, shortly before he began work on "The Bridge."
He toiled on his epic for the next several years, often running out of steam, getting by on small subsidies from various art patrons. Tormented by his demons "caught like a rat in a trap," he moaned; he traveled to Europe. In Paris, the wealthy expatriates Harry and Caresse Crosby, whose Black Sun Press had published James Joyce, promised to publish "The Bridge" upon its completion. Instead, Crane had to flee France after a drunken brawl in a cafe. Back in New York, he forced himself at last to finish the great poem, closing it with a description of a walk across the bridge that had inspired him:
Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
At 60 pages, he shipped it off to the Crosbys, and in 1930 it was published. New York publisher Horace Liveright soon issued an American version. Publication brought honors and offers. "As important a poem as has been written in our time," said the New York World. Crane won the top prize from Poetry Magazine and a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. His work was embraced by readers with a love for the rhythm of language as well as those who admired lives lived precariously on the edge. As time went on, devotees would include playwright Tennessee Williams, who carried Crane's slim works with him everywhere, and poet Robert Lowell, who called Crane the modern Percy Bysshe Shelley.
But "The Bridge" had sapped more of his will than Crane realized. With the Guggenheim money, he set sail for Mexico with plans for a vast new work, the story of Cortes' conquests. In Mexico City, he rented a small villa next to the American novelist Katherine Anne Porter. Crane was charming company, she said later, except when he reached "that point of drunkenness when he cursed all things: the moon, the air we breathed, the pool of water with its two small ducks. He didn't hate us. ... He hated and feared himself."
There were spurts of creativity and, for the first time, he became involved with a woman, Peggy Baird, the ex-wife of an old friend, literary critic Malcolm Cowley. But his productivity was short-lived. When David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, sat down to paint Crane's portrait, he said he was forced to portray the poet with eyes downcast, because otherwise there was too much desperation in his face. Crane later sliced the painting to ribbons with a razor, then drank iodine. That suicide attempt failed. Now, in April 1932, with his fellowship funds at an end, he and Baird shipped out for the U.S. aboard the steamship Orizaba.
Somewhere north of Havana, in the Gulf of Mexico, Crane ventured down to the sailors' quarters and got into a fight. The next morning, sunny and still on April 27, a passenger watched in horror as a man dressed only in pajamas and overcoat walked purposefully to the ship's stern, mounted the railing, slipped the coat from his shoulders and then threw himself into the water. A cry went up and a life preserver was thrown out, but Hart Crane quickly vanished.
His exit, friends noted later, reflected a line he had once written:
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.