Colm Tóibín on Hart Crane

“Even though most of his poems were written when he was in his twenties—he was born in 1899 and committed suicide in 1932—there is a definite sense from the few essays tha Crane wrote and from the selection of his richly interesting correspondence now collected wit his poems in a single volume that he had put considerable thought into his literary heritage an viewed his place in it with passionate sophistication. In 1926, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem “At Melville’s Tomb,” Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force. The first stanza reads:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

“Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else),” Monroe wrote.”

Hart Crane gave her an answer that Tóibín includes in his introduction to a new Library of America edition of Crane’s works; the article itself is an outstanding, if short, literary biography of a complicated and underappreciated poet.

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