On communicative difficulty in general and "difficult" poetry in particular: the example of Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower".
New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual articulation. And while I feel that my work includes a more consistent extension of traditional elements than many contemporary poets are capable of appraising, I realize that I am utilizing the gifts of the past as instruments principally, and that the voice of the present, if it is to be known, must be caught at the risk of speaking in idioms sometimes shocking to scholars and historians of logic. Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always. --Hart Crane, "General Aims and Theories" I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition. It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do. --Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze ... --Horace
Here we are talking about Hart Crane dead long ago, in the year of my birth, 1932. Hart Crane's poem "The Broken Tower," beginning with his title, engages an ancient figure--that of a monument which, by its ironic unbreakability, challenges death's obliteration of persons. In the classical poetic tradition, the work of art--whatever else it does--is always also engaged in this one task: overcoming the erasure of the name of a person by speaking it, doing fame by means of language. ("Fame," fama from L. fari, Gk. phanaito, to speak of absence with the effect of presence.)
To bring home, by means of an example, this classical scene of the work of art set to work I remind you of a poem by the Roman poet Horace. The poem is conventionally called "The Poet's Immortal Fame." Horace boasts that he will remain by reason of his poems--his monumentum--forever part of the human conversation, specifically the death-blocked conversation between the dead and the living. Hart Crane (or any poet) reminds us that the death-blocked conversation between the dead and the living is identical to the conversation between the living and the living, which is enabled and blocked in life by our unmingling bodies. Horace asserts that, by his work as poet, he has effected two things that cannot happen: first, that what he has made is indestructible (but we know that every thing is destructible); second, that he, the maker, will not "entirely" die (non omnis moriar)--but everyone entirely dies.
Poetry--and only poetry--contributes to human life precisely what the human will cannot (as we know, if we know anything) otherwise obtain. Not by reason of what the poem says, but by reason of the fact that poetry is the artistic form of language. By means of the artistic form of language, humanity--something of one nature (subject to death)--becomes capable of thinking by means of something of another nature (not subject to death). Poetry is the most valuable thing we have, but radically untrue.
Here, in context of Hart Cranes "The Broken Tower" (as an introduction to it), is Horace's poem about the unbreakable tower--the artistic form of language, poesis.
I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramid's royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy or countless chain of years and the ages' flight. I shall not altogether die [non omnis moriar--one notices in the omnis the poet's anxiety about the truth of the boast], but a mighty part of me shall escape the death-goddess ["Libitina," goddess of corpses]. On and on I shall grow ever fresh with the glory of aftertime. So long as the Pontiff climbs the Capitol with the silent Vestal [The institution of language across time, identical with the sacred, is contingent upon the state], I, risen high from low estate where Aufidus thunders and where Daunus in a parched land once ruled o'er a peasant folk [Hart Crane's equivalent was Cleveland, Ohio], shall be famed for having been the first to adapt Aeolian song [Greek high cultural poetic styles--Crane also was also a conscious formalist] to Italian verse. Accept the proud honour won by thy merits, Melpomene [muse of tragedy!], and graciously crown my locks with Delphic lays.
Cranes and Horaces poem is the same poem (Cranes "tower" is his monumentum). But, in a sense, Cranes poem is earlier or later than Horace's. Horace's confidence in the continuity of human presence by reason of the poem is no longer--or not yet--possible. Crane's broken monumentum could not bear the weight rested on it. What broke the tower?
Consider the Old Testament at Genesis 11. There we find an explanation--an etiological narrative--in fact, the theological decree of human communicative difficulty. Crane's title alludes to the story about the destruction of the tower of Babel, the "breaking of the tower of Babel"--the breaking of "The Broken Tower" by babble:
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, "Look! They are one people and they have all one language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing now will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand one another's speech.
Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower"--a "difficult" poem by a "difficult" poet--theatricalizes this Babylonian primordial curse against the human empowerment which would flow from a universal language. The reconstruction of the "city and tower" of Genesis 11 (that's what Crane's poem narrates) is a restoration of divinely prohibited communicative universality on other (matriarchal) grounds. It is the nature of the patriarchal Semitic "God" that He requires an unbounded discursive territory. Hence He prohibits representation of Himself--guards himself against the violence inseparable from the representation--the making visible of anything--eidetic violence--as I will call it. The difficulty of the "difficult" poem in our time both marks and also therefore maintains a divine (that is at least to say, a structurally fundamental) theological prohibition.
Here is Crane's poem. (Note, please, before I read out "The Broken Tower," how hard it is to perform the beginning of the reading of any poem. Perhaps, I won't really try. One must reflectively fall silent in oneself, because the voice always going on in one's head must now defer to another's voice never before heard. It is not any voice of the "myself," but a previously unknown possibility of the voice of the myself. One must abandon the "discursive field" of the own self. Also, watch the punctuation. The punctuation is this poet's careful interpretation of the relationship intended by the poet among the grammatical elements of his own text.)
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 the 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 outleaping-- 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.
Hart Cranes "The Broken Tower" is his last poem, written about 1931, when the poet was thirty-one years old. He killed himself the next year. This poem's subject, the subject of Hart Crane's magnificent last poem, is poetic "vocation," an obligating privilege which he was--as a gifted poet--likely to know about.
What, in general, is "vocation"? Vocation is the sense, of which a person may become aware, of having been assigned a cosmic task he did not choose, may not be able to perform, but to which he nonetheless is obligated. Poetic vocation, always personal (vocation is of persons), requires to make it social (i.e., public) a mediating institution other than poetry. The required institution can be any sort, entailing any kind of social engagement--for Horace it was sacred Rome. But it may be life insurance as in Stevens's case (or Kafka's). Stevens thought of insurance as redemptive, in his way. But it may also be Fascism, as in Pound's case. It may be mythological nationalism, as in Whitman's case, Holderlin's, or Yeats's, or in fact Crane's (as in The Bridge or in "The Broken Tower" where, however, he speaks on behalf of an even vaster human domain.) It may be the school, as in my case and others of my generation. But most commonly in the West the mediating institution is the religion of the state, and the requirement of mediation arises because of the social necessity of regulating the relation to the sacred. The poet is always sancta poeta and the predicate of sanctity is the same across the differences between pagan and Christian. Sanctity is the category of which the god is a member. (1)
Here are a few instances of poetic vocation, exemplary and well known: Hesiod's encounter with the muses (those "mean girls") who say, "We know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we want to, how to utter truth"; Whitman's "Out of the Cradle" when he exclaims, having heard the song of the bird: "Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake"; Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Windhover": "I caught this morning morning's minion"; Pound's "The Return"; Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"; Frost's "The Road Not Taken," the way that "made all the difference." Closest to Crane, and analytic of his purposes, is Rimbaud's scheme of intentional vocational self-authorization--the boy who undertakes to make himself a "seer" by means of a "long, prodigious, and [note!] rational disordering of all the senses."
Let's remember: the muses (the archetypal cruel girls, as in Hesiod) are never kind. Why? Because of the violence inherent in the "making" (poesis) which they sponsor and the entailed equivocality of their truth-promises. I have already given a name, in this talk about "making," to the violence inherent in making (the breaking required to turn the unmade into the made) which even the god fears. (It's the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto me ...) That's what I mean by the expression "eidetic violence." That's the unkindness of the muses. And the greater the cultural importance rested on the equivocal truth-value of the poetic text, the more unkind. The unkindest of all muses is the Semitic God.
Cultures that have no conception of fiction--all Biblical cultures--are the most explanatory in this matter: the controlling example is the murderous vocation of Abraham by God. Only recently did the verb "create" occur (legitimately, grammatically) with a human subject--i.e., as a conceivable function of human agency. Prior to the 1930s the writing of "create" with a human subject was a grammatical mistake. (So the OED S.V. "create" as late as 1933.) This shift signifies the abandonment of a millennial intuition of the necessity of a regulative function addressed to the human will that seeks to make. The consequences of this abandonment have changed our sense of possible life and made the idea of creativity incomprehensible. This is the staggering irony of Oppenheimer's reflection on the first nuclear explosion (Los Alamos, 16 July 1945): "I have become death, destroyer of worlds"--words (before Oppenheimer usurped them) of the high god of the Bhagavad Gita. More to our point, Oppenheimer named the place and the tower built to be obliterated by that explosion "Trinity"--an appropriation of the first line of a sonnet by John Donne:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, You As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, oer throw me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Oppenheimer intuited that theological hyperbole is the only discourse the culture affords to express the bearing on the human world of nuclear technology, here considered as a dreadful discourse constituted by a universal language of physical properties. What is missing (in fact remains beyond us) is the imagination of an institution adequate to regulate the power obtained on the site of creativity. The breaking of the "broken tower" is a premonitory narration of the failure of regulation. The work of the poem called "The Broken Tower" intends something like the re-institution of competent regulation of the discourse of the "sacred"--traditionally the vocation of the poet.
In talking about the artistic "form of language," poetry, we have four terms of art. They are Greek-derived from the verb poiein (Latin facere)--the verb for making--i.e., the breaking of something found in the world in order to produce something else called art. Thus we have: poetics; poetry; poem; poet. Of these, the term "poetics" is late and trivial, an institutional category. (I may be a professor of "poetics" at this very moment.) The connotations of "poetics" drift in the direction of aesthetics, the implications of which I think to be a cultural error. "Poetry" and "poem," on the other hand, are profound terms and modally distinct. The distinction is a radical distinction such that the idea of "poetry in general" (I use Shelley's language. I might have used Schlegel's, Heidegger's, Chomsky's, or another's) has a vital life that is related to actual poems only in a contingent sense, or not at all. "Poetry," as it appears, is the artistic form of language as such. Here is Chomsky in Cartesian Linguistics paraphrasing Schlegel:
The explanation for the central position of poetry lies in its association with language. Poetry is unique in that its very medium is unbounded and free; that is, its medium, language, is a system with unbounded innovative potentialities for the formation and expression of ideas. The production of any work of art is preceded by a creative mental act for which the means are provided by language. Thus the creative use of language, which, under certain conditions of form and organization, constitutes poetry, accompanies and underlies any act of the creative imagination, no matter what the medium in which it is realized. In this way, poetry achieves its unique status among the arts, and artistic creativity is related to the creative aspects of language use. (2)
The idea of poetry in general does not require that there be any actual poems, such as, for example, those made of metered sentences. There is, however, an attested sense among philosophers that poetry names a final discourse that comes into view when the limit of philosophy is seen. We find this in Rorty who may be following Wittgenstein's remark: "I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition." (3)
I myself am not clear--despite the general prestige of the word--what, as a term, "poetry," with its entailed implication of "creativity," can now mean in the context of the actual human task. What obligations "poetry" requires. What benefit to the human world the obligation, privilege, or competence named "poetry"--the vocation to "poetic work"--implies or promises. Above all, what knowledge it contributes. Nor shall I, today, answer that question to my own satisfaction. But the tendency of my thought is to consider the term "poetry," as it is now employed, as meaning "sanctioned making." That is to say, "poetry" is a now a mystified term. And the mystification of the term is demanded by the social necessity (peculiar to our cultural moment) of concealing the violence of representation as such, eidetic violence. That's the problem which (I am arguing) Crane's poem addresses by presenting the "tower" broken by its bells--rung by an unsanctioned ringer, not a bell-ringer, but a poet on a cultural vacation. In any case, my avowed unclarity with respect to the "meaning" of the word "poetry" is not, I assure you, a claim of modesty on my part or a gesture of intellectual circumspection, but rather an expression of fear.
On the historic face of it, "poetry" requires (as I have said) an institution not poetic (e.g., Horace's Rome). The relation of institution to poetic vocation is not classificatory though we do assuredly sort poetries by this means. We speak of "classical" or "romantic" or "love" poetry, or "Chinese" or "religious" poetry, "black" poetry, "gay" poetry, or whatever. The relationship of institution to poetic vocation is in fact regulative. The controlling example in America in my time--both generative and criteriological--was strangely the regulative dependence of English seventeenth-century poetry on Anglican theology mediated by T.S. Eliot, the strange context in which I was trained in the fifties. (So, also, you will have noted, was Oppenheimer in the previous generation. That's how he came to know and cite Donne's sonnet.)
The "impasse" (Crane uses the word in the fourth stanza of his poem)--the impasse which determines the minority of poetry in our present postmodern culture lies in the absence among us of sanctioned regulative institutions not poetic (historically, religio-political) such as can contribute the function of assured regulation necessary to make human sense of the vocational demand, the cruel privilege conferred by the muses. (Nor is the effect of such "institution" supplied by "creative writing courses.") In the "modern" period (let us say first half of the twentieth century) Yeats, Eliot, Stevens are prominent examples of poetic vocation put in service of institutions not poetic, which regulated and thereby made possible the conspicuous successes of English poetry in the period (the Irish state, Anglican religion, life insurance). Pound, you will remember, did his best work in a cage.
Hart Crane is also a modern poet. "The Broken Tower" (which we date 1931, '32) is a modern poem. The "Tower" referred to is an institutional signifier--a church tower. But notice the first words of our poem: "The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn / Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell / Of a spent day ..." The ringing of the bell is stated as agentless (a non-personal principle of meaning-making). The ringer is not a bell-ringer. (4) This anarchy of the bells of the Catholic church at Taxco, Mexico, expresses--the breaking of the tower signifies--a so-cio-semantic incoherence, a regulative disorientation (this bell-ringing is disturbed time-telling) which has the same effect as the well known first figure of T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
Let us go then, you and I When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table;
The cure of the vocation requires, as I have said, provision of the regulative effect of an institution not poetic which the poem undertakes to state--in fact, to supply. But can a poem do that? In any case, the urgency of this poem expresses the intent to do so. The speaker in the poem speaks in a tone of urgent purposiveness and expresses his anxiety about the generality, the shared intelligibility of his experience which must be communicated and may be impossible to communicate in. The second stanza of the poem:
Have you not heard, have you not seen the corps Of shadows in the tower ...?
"The Broken Tower" is a poem to which the principal critical response is complaint about its difficulty. What should be said about difficulty in this poem? We note the poem takes a kind of difficulty as its subject: "Have you not heard, have you not seen." The "difficulty" of this poem lies in the cognitive (that is to say, the moral) demand on the reader--the understander of the poem--to supply not merely the meaning of the poem but the sufficient condition of its having meaning at all--"meaning" being construed within the poem as the question of possibility of any common experience. Why else does a poet ring the bell?
In this light, one notes that Crane's poem, "The Broken Tower"--the formal poem as such, the poem of lines and stanzas--does not perform "brokenness"; it is in no visual or countable or grammatical way broken. It is a formally conservative sequence of "elegiac stanzas." Models of the elegiac poem consisting of a sequence of stanzas, each stanza made of four five-stress lines, alternately rhymed, are frequent enough in the tradition. Well-known examples are Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning," Wordsworth's "Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle," and Rimbaud's "Le Bateau ivre" to which I have already alluded. But Rimbaud's vocational masterpiece (which may be Crane's "source") inhabits an assured existential state of affairs which it discovers by narrativity. Crane's poem, by contrast, is put in service of the solution of a "problem," brokenness, intimate and general--a problem life-constitutive, but insoluble. Crane's poem proceeds by presenting paired terms of radically contradictory, categorical differences constitutive of experience (e.g. father/mother; male/female; homo/hetero; outer/inner; mind/body, etc.)--differences which are necessary to any life and express (when considered as categorical, contradictory, and inevitable) the discursive impossibility of experience altogether. Crane's "brokenness" is not personal, intentional, and descriptive like Rimbaud's "dereglement," but (by contrast) social and analytic, i.e., philosophical, a matter of logic in the technical sense--as American modernist poems from Whitman on tend to be.
The institution not poetic that Crane offers as subverting poesis is "logic." But he warns us that his vocation risks "speaking in idioms ... sometimes shocking to the scholars and historians of [Aristotelian] logic." I have elsewhere studied the implication of the Lincolnian difference-based logic, on the one hand, and Whitman's celebration of no difference on the other. Crane followed Whitman. Crane says, "My hand in yours, Walt Whitman." Among competing institutions, between which Crane takes sides, are the two mutually exclusive logics: the tragic logic of Aristotle's excluded middle--never A and not-A--and the logic exemplified in Crane's experience by P.D. Ouspensky's high comic logic of inclusion: yes A and not-A--everything is all, forever! Crane's poem puts us in the presence, not of an "artistic" structure, but of an institution (logic) that, as he understands it, is whole, not mind-dependent, referenced to ourselves in another way than poetry is. As he says, "Language (i.e. "language" as such--not conversation) has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always." The poem conducts us (permits us to think our way through) from tragic logic (Aristotle) to the other comic logic of inclusion, the logic of ecstasy. (5)
It should be clear that I regard good poems as cognitive triumphs. Poems are "good," from my point of view, insofar as they respond to real problems of mind to which there is no other solution than poetry (on this occasion, this poem). One studies and enjoys a poem with intent to grasp what a human problem is and what can be said in response to that knowledge. A good poem is (I repeat) a "cognitive triumph," something known to which an appropriate response would be to say that it is true.
"The Broken Tower"--a poem not itself "broken"--consists often elegiac stanzas. But note that the vertical sequence of stanzas is divided into five stanzas and then five more. And that the second sequence of five is divided from the first by difference of tone. Now, at stanza six, we hear the voice of a man owning, stating, and confidently answering a question in the language of a person whom the poem intends to make competent and real, the person who has in fact survived to utter the stanzas that we read.
The first sequence of five stanzas presents a state of affairs (an experience) and ends with the words "desperate choice." On this choice (between two accounts of the origin and affinities of poetic composition) depends the value of the incautiously "poured" word--depends, that is to say, the meaning and worth of the "creativity" of which this poem is example--perhaps proof. How shall we state that meaning, the meaning of "creativity" of which the creation speaks? That meaning is exactly knowledge of difference. In this poem difference between (on the one hand) tragic, disintegrated states, the broken stone tower with which the poem begins, and (on the other hand) comic, integrated states, the reconstructed tower within that is not stone with which the poem ends. Of that conclusion the poem of words (not broken) is confident evidence.
What the poem gets done (and assigns us as a rich gift) is the finding of words to express the choice made and to make the decision true--the finding of a word-path (a Heideggerian wood-path) we can follow, i.e., understand, from the stone tower to "the tower that is not stone." On the finding of this word-path we can follow together depends the value of the poem and the cure of the vocation--the worth and safety of it.
The second half of the poem, therefore, begins: "My word I poured." The poem then proceeds to state the terms of the choice, supplies the question articulated: the desperate choice--between despair (desespoir), the sin against the "holy ghost," and hope (espoir), the theological basis of all confidence, and then provides an answer sufficient to the articulated need to choose. This poem is driven, as I have said poems must be, by the urgency of a problem to which only a poem (only poetry) can find a solution. It's the post-Babylonian question: is there a universal--a socially integrating, secular language consistent with the terms of human life, a tower the God will let stand? Is general conversation among human beings possible?
"Tower" was a term in much discourse early in the last century. Crane's tower is the tower of a church, an oriented structure where two worlds meet: human and divine. Yeats's tower was both dwelling and symbol--but personally intended--he said: "I declare this tower is my symbol." If we ask the poet, will saying so make it so? The answer is "Yes!" The truth of orientation is postulated not given. Such was Jung's tower house at Bollingen, Rilke's tower at Muzot, Eiffel's grand useless money-making monument in Paris, Oppenheimer's tower called Trinity with its Donne etymology. Many towers in the period, all guarding human language--the possibility of general conversation (Gesprach). The philosophic "parent" of these towers is the church tower of Kant's Konigsberg, which supplied the master with an axis mundi, an orientative mark not an intrinsic truth--but the possibility-condition of knowing the world.
This "ringing" of the bells in Crane's poem is the angelus, as the poem notes in this case a morning ringing beginning before sunrise (not the noon or evening angelus, also customary). This ringing is specifically stated--timed--in the second stanza of "The Broken Tower." It occurs "before / the stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray." The latter expression begins the exposition in Crane's poem of the cure of that violence, that "brokenness" attending all perception's representations including those sanctioned by poetic vocation--what I am calling eidetic violence--of which this poem, as I interpret it, intends the cure--the poem of this ringing "through whose pulse I hear.... The angelus [meaning the pacification] of wars my chest evokes."
The scriptural sanction of the angelus is foundational for institutional Christianity. It is an archetypal account of instituting vocation through the mother (Luke 1: 26-35): "The angel [angelus] Gabriel was sent from God ... to ... Mary.... And the angel came in unto her and said to her 'Hail, thou art highly favored, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.... Fear not, Mary: for thou has found favor with God ... you shall conceive a child and his name will be called Jesus.'" Crane's "The Broken Tower" has a discursive singularity--a strangeness which is like the response of the Virgin to the words spoken by Gabriel in Luke's text, the strangeness that is registered in the astonishment of Mary's response to the angel: "How shall this be ...?" There is a double sense, in the scriptural event as in this poem as well, of the commonplace and also of the impossible--a sense of unanticipated actuality. It is an exceptional encounter--an encounter of the nature of impossible exceptionality, which it is greatly in our interest to consider. It belongs to the deep hermeneutic which this poem--its substantive difficulty--properly calls for.
Both Crane's life and the reception of his work are characterized by an aura of exceptionality, even among poet-lives and poetic works--as if Hart Crane was, among poetic writers, a true poet and his poems, among poetic texts, mysteriously true poems. This sentiment of privilege (this archetypical vocationality of Crane) determines his language (his only presence now to the world, his fama) and is, and should always be, astonishment and a trouble to his readers. It is difficult only if and when it is understood. The "difficulty" comes after understanding, not before. But decipherment is not understanding.
It is important, therefore, to recall, when reading Crane, that no poem of value, such as "The Broken Tower," is about the poet who wrote it down. Nor is it explicable in terms of the life of the poet. Nonetheless, what people do in their lives has the same archetypical character as what they write--and is as little invented by the doer as the poem is the invention of the poet. The idea of "vocation" (discourse authorized from afar) and also the idea of "difficulty" (discourse not solved by explanation) point with equal relevance both to the life and to the work. As also does the "cure of vocation" which requires the facing toward, the articulation and bringing to mind, by whatever means, the violence inherent in representation as such. That's the real work of the poet--what poetry, if it can intend anything, should do and what the Crane-poet did.
Crane was a man burdened by and identified with the poetic vocation. The mythic archetype of such a life is the story of Orpheus who failed to retrieve Eurydice from death because he couldn't stop looking at her. What is brought to mind as an image is lost--that's the bitter Orphic rule. Crane's life--the life of a maker--ended in suicide, an artifactual death--that is to say, his death was the last artifact of his making, faithful to vocation. He was, in his end, both the Orpheus and the Eurydice of the archetype, bequeathing to others the problematic of vocation. Cranes archetypal subjection to his vocation contributed the structure both of his life and death. The trace of his archetypical vocation is the astonishment of his poems--the seeing (or vision) of the doomed spectator. Toward the end of his life Crane destroyed with a knife a large and distinguished portrait of himself reading, painted by the Mexican artist Siqueiros, from whom he had commissioned it. The violence of the destruction by the poet of the poet's image mirrors the violence which the image committed upon its subject.
Let us step back a moment. What are poems for? A good poem gives rise to thinking. About what? About states of affairs which would not, except for the poem, come to mind, be seen as problems, the solutions not be seen as solutions. The poems of Hart Crane are particularly exacting--"difficult"--in this matter. In general, the requirement of thought about poetic texts is precipitated by a characteristic of poems that is commonly called closure. We are now, let us assume, at the end Cranes poem. We must stop and think: how does this end flow with inevitability from what went before? What does the poem intend to follow after--what can be thought that could not be thought by the reader before the poem was known to the reader? (6)
I will try to say how this dynamic transvaluation of experience is stated and then I will be done. The narrative transit from outer to inner (the action of this poem) is arguably the most common and most prestigious story in Western civilization--comic in the large philosophical sense, healing. The intent of this narrative (outer to inner) is re-orientation, recuperation, retrieval, closure ... (It is the artistic inevitability of this requirement--closure--that supplies Adorno's repudiation of art after Auschwitz.) The "re-" morpheme is the bottom-line fiction (after all, what it means can't happen because there is no return). In the eighth stanza of "The Broken Tower" we hear it at line thirty: "re-call," "revived," and its reversal in "sure" which rhymes with "pure."
Crane's discourse--his re-formed logic--proceeds not by exclusion but by the reversal of polarities: mind/body; inner/outer; mother/father; also form/content and metricality/reference. But not without breakage, for healing implies wound. Stanzas three and four of "The Broken Tower" states the breakage required to make possible this reorientative transition:
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 outleaping-- O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!...
What is the breakage as stated?--the Kafkaesque engraving on the body ("membrane through marrow") of a prior disintegrated "long scattered score," song-text of mistake; then the realization of "impasse"--the killing ("banked voices slain") of prior discourses, i.e., the prohibited Babylonian universal tower-languages of pagodas and campaniles (indifferently) and their "echoes"; then all other authority (e.g., papal "encyclicals") blocked and "slain," killed by this new knowledge, this performance by the bells of a cognitive "reveille"; above all the repudiation of the "brotherhood" of the bells, that "corps of shadows in the tower." (7)
Our understanding of the conclusion of the poem (the last five stanzas of "The Broken Tower") will depend on how we answer the question what "mind" means. What is the "within?" For Crane and the religion of Crane's mother and her family (Christian Scientists, their scripture being Science and Health) the answer is: God is within and God is Mind. (She is male and female; how else could She have created both man and woman in Her image?) (8) In Christian Science, Mind heals by reason of origination prior to body. Hence Crane's "healed, original now, and pure." This healing is the cure of the vocation--representation that escapes eidetic violence because the matter in which it works is not material. Therefore "fame" is not subject to scarcity. What follows after breaking is building: "And builds within a tower that is not stone."
The end of any poem is the moment when, filled with the poem's language, the readers--the preservers of the poem, die Bewahrenden--are left alone with meaning, imperative and not their own. What work does the poem assign us? Is it worth doing? Can it be done? Let mestep back again. I speak of Crane's conscious turn (orientative reversal) from outer to inner, from subjection to Aristotelian logic which is also the logic of mimesis (i.e. representation as such--the eidetic of violence to which I have referred) all the way over to the conscious privileging of a logic which states that A and not-A are the same--are all. But this is only true in the domain of the mother--on the analytic ground of the mother's body, the "matrix of the heart" which extinguishes sexual difference--brings forth both sexes indifferently.
"The Broken Tower" conducts us (reorients us on the archetypal pathway) from "pater" (father, pattern) to "mater" (mother, matrix). In matrix (the matrix of the heart) the antimetaphoric, non-representational "logic of ecstasy" is the rule. I wish to emphasize that it is the strangeness, the radical unfamiliarity of the thought, the unexpectedness of the cognitive demand that makes Crane "difficult." The difficulty is not stylistic. The difficulty is substantial, meta-logical, non-metaphoric, matrical. The difficulty is not "literary."
The action of the poem produces re-predication, that is to say that the significant human world is at the end governed by a new representational regime without eidetic violence--a regime "that shrines a quiet lake and swells a tower." The new predicate is "mental" as in Blake's "mentalfight." Look again at the last stanza of the poem: "The matrix of the heart" is followed without breakage by the "difficult" (i.e., contradictory) gesture "lift down" and the strangely transitive verbs "shrine" and "swell." What does it all mean? It means: Yes! A and not-A forever.
Thus the poem does not celebrate (as Crane himself and all his friends may have thought) the transit from homo- to heterosexual relationship. About that we really know nothing. But, in fact, it is extinction of the difference that is conveyed by means of what we might reasonably be called deep style, work with language in the light of all its histories.
The last stanza of "The Broken Tower" is as follows:
The matrix of the heart lift down the eye That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower ... The commodious, tall decorum of the sky Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.
This "extinction of difference," especially of sexual difference--that's the meaning of "the matrix of the heart"--is followed in our poem by two great words: "commodious" and "decorum": "The commodious, tall decorum of that sky" (eighteenth-century words--Sam Johnson, Tom Jefferson words) signifying relationship--conversation--communicative "action" in human scale among persons always on the same ground. Everything that Crane wrote should be seen as devised to make possible Crane's situation in his text of these two great words (which occur no other place in Crane's poetic work, but here at the end of it).
Hart Crane was not a thinker by any means, but he was a maker who thought about making and whose making requires thought. Crane's question, "But was it cognate with ...?" (that is, with what origin-story--satanic or divine--with what history is poetry affined?) is the maker's question (not about the psychological or literary, but about the ethical affinities of making and what is made). This question is, in my understanding, the profound question to which the "man of letters" in our time, that is any conscious person in civilization--any person--is obligated. It is also the question the answer to which is hardest for us in the university (creatures of the text) to consider. You will notice that the question mark disappears from Crane's text after the seventh stanza into an end-state of the poem which is metrically and grammatically conclusive but semantically open. The last line of the poem opens. Its capital word is "Unseals."
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.
The poem has done what poetry can do. It has given rise to thinking.
1 / See Grossman on "Holiness" in Cohen and Mendes-Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: Scribner, 1987).
2 / Consider Chomsky's high-comic (integrative) conception of the universality of the language competence or faculty, the Bridge or Tower that never breaks, an innate material, value-bearing fact, the ground of the poetic principle which secures the value of all selves. In Cartesian Linguistics Chomsky speaks of the prestige of poetry in terms of this "creative" aspect of language which is innate and specifies the person without exception: "The 'poetical' quality of ordinary language derives from its independence of immediate stimulation ... and its freedom from practical ends. These characteristics, along with the boundlessness of language as an instrument of free self-expression, are essentially those emphasized by Descartes and his followers. But it is interesting to trace, in slightly greater detail, the argument by which Schlegel goes on to relate what we have called the creative aspect of language use to true creativity. Art, like language, is unbounded in its expressive potentiality. But, Schlegel argues, poetry has a unique status among the arts in this respect; it, in a sense, underlies all others and stands as the fundamental and typical art form. We recognize this unique status [of poetry] when we use the term 'poetical' to refer to the quality of true imaginative creation in any of the arts. The explanation for the central position of poetry lies in its association with language. Poetry is unique in that its very medium is unbounded and free; that is, its medium, language, is a system with unbounded innovative potentialities for the formation and expression of ideas. The production of any work of art is preceded by a creative mental act for which the means are provided by language. Thus the creative use of language, which, under certain conditions of form and organization, constitutes poetry, accompanies and underlies any act of the creative imagination no matter what the medium in which it is realized. In this way, poetry achieves its unique status among the arts, and artistic creativity is related to the creative aspects of language use." (Chomsky is paraphrasing Schlegel's Die Kunstlehre.)
3 / Crane put it this way in a letter (1925) to Eugene O'Neill--a letter Crane designed to describe his project, in view of an introduction O'Neill was to write for White Buildings. (An introduction which was finally written, very successfully from Crane's point of view, by Allen Tate.) The following paragraph is from Crane's letter to O'Neill, unpublished in his lifetime (a text now called "General Aims and Theories"): "It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our 'real' world somewhat as a spring-board, and give to the poem as a whole an orbit or predetermined direction of its own. I would like to establish it as free from my own personality as from any chance evaluation on the reader's part. (This is, of course, an impossibility, but it is a characteristic worth mentioning.) Such a poem is at least a stab at a truth, and to such an extent may be differentiated from other kinds of poetry and called 'absolute.' Its evocation will not be toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, and 'innocence' (Blake) or absolute beauty. In this condition there may be discoverable under new forms certain spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions. It is as though the poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader's consciousness henceforward."
Crane then goes on to say: "As to technical considerations ... the entire construction of the poem is raised on the organic principle of a 'logic of metaphor,' which antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension."
Crane then goes on to say: "These dynamics often result, I'm told, in certain initial difficulties in understanding my poems."
By these words Crane undertakes to explain and justify to O'Neill his own classification of the poetry he writes as difficult, presenting "difficulties," by which term he justifies the otherness of the mind he knows his poem presents to his reader, his poet's gift to the reader of "a single, new word never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate." What is clear is that this difficult "new" word ("never before spoken and impossible to enunciate") which Crane as poet intends to contribute to the "reader's consciousness henceforward" as an active principle is valuable, "worth it," a kind of truth. At this point, I note that Crane was for a time an advertising copywriter (for J. Walter Thompson, among others). These words addressed by Crane on his own behalf to O'Neill are certainly intended to supply O'Neill with some compelling "copy." They are an advertisement by Crane for himself, and for his project, in case O'Neill didn't get the point. It would be worthwhile to consider Crane's poetry in general from this point of view.
4 / The bell tower narrative: Lesley Simpson, who read "The Broken Tower" when it was published, made the following note not long after Crane's suicide: "I was with Hart Crane in Taxco, Mexico, the morning of January 27, this year , when he conceived the idea of 'The Broken Tower.'" The night before, being troubled with insomnia, he had risen before daybreak and walked down to the village square. Hart met the old Indian bell-ringer who was on his way down to the church. He and Hart were old friends and he brought Hart up into the tower with him to help ring the bells. As Hart was swinging the clapper of the great bell ... the swift tropical dawn broke over the mountains. The sublimity of the scene and the thunder of the bells woke in Hart one of those gusts of joy of which only he was capable. He came striding up the hill afterwards in a sort of frenzy, refused his breakfast, and paced up and down the porch waiting impatiently for me to finish my coffee. Then he seized my arm and bore me off to the plaza, here we sat in the shadow of the church, Hart the while pouring out a magnificent cascade of words."
In the photograph that we have of Crane in the tower we see Hart Crane, the Mexican sexton who permitted him to do the bells, and the shadow of Peggy Baird who took the picture. In the photo she took, she casts a shadow on the lower part of Hart Crane's seated body.
5 / "The logic of ecstasy" is an expression Crane found on the title page of the American edition of P.D. Ouspensky's Tertium Organum (The Third Organ of Thought): A Key to the Enigmas of the World (1920), which Crane read in 1923 and remarked on in a letter to Allen Tate. This book circulated among writers in London and subsequently in America during and after the First World War. Crane's interest was in Ouspensky's exposition of a higher or "new logic" which Ouspensky attributed to Plotinus. Ouspensky's logic is of the same "inclusive" nature as Whitman's. See Allen Grossman, "The Poetics of Union in Whitman and Lincoln: An Inquiry toward the Relationship of Art and Policy," in The Long Schoolroom (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan p, 1997).
6 / Poetry and closure: poems are written in both lines and sentences. Line and sentence are radically different structures. There cannot, for example, be an interrogative line. Lines are invariant abstract structures each composed with an opening and close following metrical expectation but utterly different than sentences which are grammatical systems governed by other rules. Sentences are not materially equivalent formal elements. but lines or groups of lines (stanzas) are. By reason of lines, formal closure is performed identically over and over until the poem ends. By reason of sentences, grammatical closure is performed non-identically. But at the end of the poem, the close as such, both (disparate) systems conclude simultaneously.
The reason all this needs to be said follows from the fact that Crane was a metrical line writer. His sense required the abstraction of measured line in a way uncharacteristic of what we call modern poetry, and the end of Crane's poem--this poem, "The Broken Tower" (its terminal closure) requires a rationality (a meaning) consistent with the severely defined relation between line and sentence in accord with which "The Broken Tower" is constructed. The meaning of "The Broken Tower" is accomplished at the end (stanzas nine and ten) at poem close. Closure in this poem puts meaning in service of a liberation, not of the kind that defeats order, but of another kind. What is found is a liberation which sanctions order, the cure of poetic vocation by poetic means.
7 / On Crane's sense of "brotherhood" as homosexual society see this letter to Solomon Grunberg (8 February 1932):
Dear Mony: ... not, as you surmise, in constant Bacchic state. Not by any means. However, I happen to be in something approximating it at this present moment, since I've got to work on the first impressive poem I've started, in the last two years. I feel the old confidence again; and you may know what that means to someone of my stripe! The servants are all asleep--and I'm in that pleasant state of beginning all over again. Especially as I am in love again--and never as quite before. Love is always more important than locality; and this is the newest adventure I ever had. I won't say much more than that I seem to have broken ranks with my much advertised "brotherhood" and a woman whom I have known for years--suddenly seems to "have claimed her own." I can't say that I'm sorry. It has given me new perspectives, and after many tears and groans--something of a reason for living.
8 / Christian Science was the religion of Crane's family. Crane employed for his final language (Mind is God) Mary Baker Eddy's text Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures. The scriptures in question are Genesis and Revelation. From the Eddy glossary: "MIND. The only I, or Us; the only Spirit, Soul, divine Principle, substance, Life, Truth, Love; the one God; not that which is in man, but the driving Principle, of God of whom man is the full and perfect expression; Deity which outlines but is not outlined." "FATHER-MOTHER is the name for Deity."