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great European art movement of the early 20th century, found an
audience of one in the industrialized new world, and that was Hart Crane.
He was not the first American poet to be comfortable in the modern world,
nor was he the first to use its imagery in his poems: that would be Walt
Whitman. But Hart Crane was the first poet in the English language who
wished to modernize his art by incorporating the machine, as both an
object and a symbol, into his verse. Only he understood the new spirit of
Futurism, epitomized in Guillaume Apollinaire’s call “to mechanize
poetry as the world has been mechanized” and understood it not as
trivial or propagandistic, but as one of the primary functions of poetry
in his age.
For unless poetry can absorb the machine...then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function. This process does not infer any program of lyrical pandering to the taste of those obsessed by the importance of machinery; nor does it essentially involve even the specific mention of a single mechanical contrivance. It demands, however...an extraordinary capacity for surrender, at least temporarily, to the sensations of urban life.
Crane identified this capacity (as Guillaume Apollinaire and T.S. Eliot had before him) as essential for the modern poet. And, in this surrender to urban life, the machine was not the sole subject but, rather, took its appropriate place within the poet’s experience:
For, contrary to general prejudice, the wonderment experienced in watching nose dives is of less immediate creative promise to poetry than the familiar gesture of a motorist in the modest act of shifting gears. I mean to say that mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual remove; it can not act creatively in our lives until, like the unconscious nervous responses of our bodies, its connotations emanate from within—forming as spontaneous a terminology of poetic reference as the bucolic world of pasture, plow, and barn.
These significant alterations of the Futurist credo explain why Crane’s poetry remains of permanent interest, while so much Futurist literature seems provisional. He considered the Machine Age a fit subject for poetry, but the machine was interesting only insofar as it germinated “new forms of spiritual articulation.” His central preoccupation was always man. Though Crane could create cinematic descriptions of the drama of the modern city:
of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
It was the grafting of human responses onto these descriptions of machines which readers found so attractive:
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
Crane was also fond of using a simple image, and plain language, as counterpoint to an accumulation of technological imagery. The next stanza, a stunning fusion of the modern and Elizabethan idioms, demonstrates this contrast in the fourth line:
the traffic lights that skim thy swift
device, of giving human characteristics to inanimate objects, seems unique
and praiseworthy. Crane attained a great variety of effects in this
manner, and it is a gift he has bequeathed to other poets.
nasal whine of power whips a new universe...
passages, a critical intelligence is demonstrably present. We may quibble
with its Whitmanic optimism, with its verbal excess, but we cannot say
that it is mere rhetorical splendor, the piling up of hyperboles. It has
been said that a little of this goes a long way; I would not disagree.
Crane was certainly intoxicated by words, but not in the same sense that
Swinburne was, whose words lost their denotative force. Rather, he shares
with Shelley a general tendency: the almost cancerous multiplication of
metaphors. Images lose their proportionality, and become vague in their
profusion. However, Crane's images were often disciplined in a manner that
Shelley disdained, namely by deliberation and revision.