|ABRAHAM LINCOLN WALKS AT MIDNIGHT
by Vachel Lindsay
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high-top hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:--as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnoughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-draped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;--the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the worker's earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
President Abraham Lincoln
When the Poetry Dies in
A moving biography reflects on Hart Crane's wildly
original writing and the sad melodrama of his life
Sunday, July 25, 1999
By FLOYD SKLOOT, Special writer, The Oregonian
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.
FIRST STANZA, "REPOSE OF RIVERS,"
BY HART CRANE
Sometimes a poet's sensational life overshadows the
literary achievement. Sylvia Plath is remembered more
often for her ferocious drive, dramatic marriage and
suicide than for her brilliant late poetry; Anne Sexton is
recalled for her glamorous affairs, bad parenting and
lifelong flirtation with suicide rather than for her daring
imagery and formal excellence. The poems, if read at all,
are examined primarily to illuminate the lives.
Hart Crane's melodramatic life and the labyrinthine
difficulty of his work conspire to encourage just such an
approach. Born exactly 100 years ago, Crane was the
great "roaring boy" of modern American poetry, a
homosexual when the lifestyle was taboo, who hoped to
write and live "beyond words entirely," seeking to force
new meanings into the English language and to cross new
thresholds of experience. Some thought he was a genius,
others a fake.
He published only two books in a brief, decade-long
career. But Crane's poetry had a wildness and originality
that demanded attention. According to Mariani, he wrote
"two octaves above the higher end of the scale" than
anybody else and lived that way, too. In his moving and
sad biography, "The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart
Crane," Paul Mariani carefully balances an assessment of
the life and art. As in his previous biographies of Robert
Lowell, John Berryman and William Carlos Williams,
Mariani -- an accomplished poet himself, and a professor
at the University of Massachusetts -- focuses on what
made Crane a great writer, not just a fascinating
Life and art clearly merged in Crane's use of alcohol. He
liked to write under its influence, claiming that it released
him to be a "visionary." It certainly jazzed up his language.
The poem "The Wine Menagerie," whose origins Mariani
traces "to the drunken Fourth of July celebrations (and) to
his drunken week in New York," is not only a hymn to the
value Crane found in booze but also a virtual statement of
his artistic method:
Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze. Whether drunk
and picking up sailors at the docks, drunk and combating
the great literary minds of the 1920s in face-to-face
argument or drunk and writing lushly obscure lyrics, Crane
saw himself as "the last Romantic." Staring at the world
through a gaze that people found difficult to meet, Crane
stomped through the flapper era and was astonished when
others turned away from him.
On the surface, his is a familiar American story: The gifted
but tormented young man from a broken Midwest home
takes New York by storm and becomes a star at 25. He
then attempts to write the great American epic while
struggling to earn a living in the cruel city, loses himself in
alcoholic and predatory sexual excesses, finds his talent
gone and commits suicide at the age of 32.
Born Harold Hart Crane, he was the only child of his
mismatched parents' brief, miserable marriage. His father
was a millionaire Ohio candy-maker who kept trying to
make his son join the family business, even after the boy
failed in every attempt to work there, even after he had
become a poetic eminence.
Crane's mother, unstable and histrionic, kept her son in
thrall, manipulating his emotions until their final break a
few years before Crane's suicide. She lived most of her
post-marital life in the company of an aging mother, trying
to get her son to live with them as well, luring him home
with claims of illness, then habitually shattering his faith in
himself. She was, Crane said, an "insatiable demon of
morbidity." He never ceased struggling to free himself
Despite the elder Crane's wealth, son and mother
remained in near-poverty after the divorce. One of the
darkest themes in this biography is the poet's ongoing
attempts to feed, clothe and house himself, begging his
father for money, borrowing from his mother or his
friends, taking jobs he loathed. Humiliation hounded him.
There has not been an American poet quite like Hart
Crane. He never taught at a university. He never read his
poems to a public audience and published few reviews or
critical pieces. He never finished high school, barely
earned enough money as a sometime advertising
copywriter to survive, could not settle down in one place
or with one lover. Restlessness and fury characterized his
approach to everything. The figures he most brings to
mind, at least superficially, are Dylan Thomas and the
fabled Lord Byron.
By the age of 28, the biography says, "his face already
had the swollen, blotched appearance of the alcoholic,
and his prematurely gray hair was beginning to turn white.
In truth, Crane was no longer in control of his own life."
Four years later, after a horrible year of failure to write or
love while on fellowship in Mexico, Crane climbed over
the rail of the ship bringing him home to New York and
disappeared. As he had hoped, but no longer believed,
Hart Crane's slim body of work has endured -- almost
despite the melodrama of his life.