Hart Crane: American Futurist

Futurism, the 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.

[private]The age, it must be said, has not recognized its own image. The challenge outlined by Apollinaire is one our contemporary poets have continued to dismiss, which partly explains the antiquated quality of their poetry. And readers continue to describe Crane as a visionary poet, which implies an ability to see certain realities the rest of us cannot share, though the term seems to be used most often to describe precisely those verses where he deals with contemporary experience most concretely. If Crane was visionary it was in this: he sought to understand the forces of his age, and humanize them, and turn them to aesthetic ends.

Still, Crane wrote more than a decade after Futurism’s rapid rise and fall in Europe, and he was never an official member of that movement, which explains his independence from a number of its more eccentric dogmas. For he, unlike his Futurist predecessors, did not believe that the poet should celebrate the machine for its own sake; rather, he was interested in the effect of the machine on man. He also possessed a healthy skepticism concerning the Industrial Revolution, which was a quality the early Futurists lacked conspicuously:

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:

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn…

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:

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

This 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.

This is one gift among many. There is the verbal montage of the opening of “The River.” There is the casual mythological allusion of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen.” And then there are sections so intensely preoccupied with machines, and their philosophical implications, that they must be called the fruits of Crane’s interest in Futurist themes:

The nasal whine of power whips a new universe…
Where spouting pillars spoor the evening sky,
Under the looming stacks of the gigantic power house
Stars prick the eyes with sharp ammoniac proverbs,
New verities, new inklings in the velvet hummed
Of dynamos, where hearing’s leash is strummed…

In such 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.

It must be said that Crane’s innovative use of technological imagery has not impressed itself upon succeeding generations of poets. That he has not been influential in this regard, and in this most technological of eras, seems puzzling; here is a poet, after all, who has something to teach the present world. This cannot be accounted for so long as we consider the problem one of poetry, rather than one of attitudes that the present world does not share.

Here, a comparison may be useful. It has been said, often and truthfully, that W. H. Auden was the first English poet who felt comfortable in the modern world, who used the imagery of the industrialized world naturally in his poetry. There are two principles that must be noted here: the first is an attitude about history, while the second is a technique. Auden was comfortable in the modern world because he accepted it as natural, as a world which was already given, and which one could only accept, though not uncritically. Of course, that Auden did embrace modern technology quite uncritically is shown in the way he used its imagery in his poems. There, such machines as the automobile and the airplane are to be found, in abundance, but used as mere elements in the background and never as symbols.

The example of Auden is meant to show that the attitude influenced the technique; the two principles are not necessarily, but are often, linked. There is, in fact, a world of difference between Auden and Crane in this regard. Age does not explain it. They were contemporaries: Crane was born eight years earlier. Yet Auden’s attitude seems far more congenial to the contemporary mind. But then to consider the industrial world as part of the natural order is a very modern error, and one of which Hart Crane was never guilty.[/private]

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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