Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, March 19, 2010

"The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane" by Paul Mariani

The Broken Tower:   The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani (1999, 492 pages)
Hart Crane (1899 to 1932) is a poet much more know about than read.   In many ways he is the very embodiment of the public image of a gay poet burning himself out in a short life.     His life story is almost a complete stereotype with a domineering father who sneered at his efforts at poetry and over indulgent mother who he adored.    He came to dislike the very idea of marriage through watching the bitter fights of his parents.   He loved alcohol, reading, Melville, Mexico, The Brooklyn bridge, New York City  and sailors.    Some see him as a great poet ranking right below Whitman, Shelley and Yeats.    Others see him as striving for the Orphic depth through a mask of obscurity and   a best half digested sense of history who overreached for his rhymes.   He saw himself as a tragic figure.    He devoted huge energies to finding ways not to have to work.    He received fellowships of various sorts and lived for a while as the companion of a very wealthy devotee.    He destroyed all of these relationships and seemingly never saw any role he might have had in his problems.    

Paul Mariani has done a wonderful job bringing Hart to life for us.    We feel his father's oppression but we also can see his frustration.  (The father was in the candy business.   He created the Life Saver candy but sold the patent for a small amount just before the candy became very popular.)     We see what Cleveland, where Hart grew up,  meant to him and get a look at gay life there in the 1920s.    We see his inability to mature into a self responsible adult.   We come to see why Hart loved New York City so much.     We get a very good look at the gay literary scene in NYC in the 1920s.    I did come to wonder if part of the success of Hart did come from patronage by wealthy fans who some how enjoyed a proximity to Crane.   Crane was many things but he was never dull.    He stayed for a brief period in Ford Madox Ford's Paris apartment (They had a mutual friend in  Alan Tate).   Hart ended up in a terrible fight (he often got beaten up by the men he picked up on his night crawls) and spent a few days in a jail in Paris.   Mariani even details the rat bites Crane received in that jail.

Mariani (professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of several highly regarded literary biographies) has an attitude of near worship toward Crane.    He sees him as kind of Orphic poet who found deep wisdom not available to more conventional academic poets like T S Eliot.   Crane's most famous poem is  his  The Bridge, an  epic on the history of America.    Crane's poetry is filled with images that can easily be seen as allusions to homo-erotic activity.    The question that dominated my reading of   The Broken Tower:   The Life of Hart Crane was "Could a straight Hart Crane who worked as an executive in his father's candy business written the poems he did as a hobby on the side?"    No screams out at me as the only answer.   Hart saw him self as a genius persecuted for his homosexuality in most quarters though he clearly used it to his advantage in dealings with some wealthy patrons.    Crane needed to feel he was Orpheus descending into the underground and coming back to tell those in the upper world of the visions he had seen.    His underground was the rough gay bars of N Y City and Paris.     He does not seem to have really had a partner that was near his intellectual or social equal.    Crane loved to roam the streets of NYC looking for  encounters.  Crane saw himself as a tragic figure and his sexual orientation and the problems it caused him seem central to this.    

Crane died by jumping of a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico at age 32 after a sever beating by a group of sailors.    Here is part of his poem, "The Broken Tower":

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 out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…
I read a good bit of his poetry on line as I was reading the book.  I tried to find some striking lines to quote.   I could not really find any.    Crane celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge as the symbol of America seems terribly dated, his use of the Indian Princess Pocahontas seems near silly to us now and his culture seems shallow.    Mariani suggests that Hart was widely and deeply read in the classics and in modern poetry.   I at times wonder if Mariani's judgment was not clouded by his obvious love of Hart as the allusions in his poetry seem forced.   Some see Crane as a poet prosecuted for his life style and a man who had his potential tragically cut short.   I see him as poet whose work was stimulated by this very persecution and without it he would never have written the works he did.    I wonder would a Hart Crane who died in his 70s, fat and without the beauty of youth, still be read or even remembered.    I commend 100 percent The Broken Tower:  The Life of Hart Crane, it is very detailed, very well documented, full of interesting information about the greats and 3rd rates of the NYC and Paris literary world.   Maybe Mariani is over reaching in his admiration for Crane's poetry (or maybe I just dismiss any poetry that does not compare well to W B Yeats and Whitman) but his book really is a great literary biography.   I closed the book feeling I knew Hart Crane and had learned a good bit about the literary scene in NYC in the 1920s.   I also felt the book gives us a very balanced look at how Hart's sexual orientation shaped his poetry.  

I am reading this for the GLBT challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

Mel u


Suko said...

I'd never heard of this poet before stopping here. Interesting post.

Jeanne C. said...

Hi, I am following you, too! Glad I found you... this sounds very good!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

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Anonymous said...

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ds said...

Interesting review, Mel. I like the idea of Crane seeing himself as Orpheus (very apt). There is much to like in his poetry though; I really do believe he identified strongly with Whitman.