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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The logic of metaphor: Hart Crane explains “At Melville’s Tomb” to Harriet Monroe

Scarriet’s recent post about Timothy Donnelly and Donnelly’s essay, “A Match Made in Poetry: Yvor Winters vs. Hart Crane,” recalls a famous exchange of letters between Poetry’s founding editor Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane almost a century ago.

Monroe (whose birthday is today) founded Poetry in 1912 and served as its editor until her death in 1936. Her “Open Door” policy—to print the best poetry written, in whatever style, genre, or approach—led Poetry to publish poems that ranged from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” to Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” to Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (the stanzas of which Monroe notoriously convinced Stevens to rearrange).

A poet herself, Monroe liked to engage writers in lively exchanges about the meaning of their work. One of the most memorable occurred in 1926 when she queried new contributor Hart Crane on his submission, “At Melville’s Tomb”:
Take me for a hard-boiled, unimaginative, unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else). . . . I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.
Monroe’s query drew from Crane what Colm Tóibín has called “one of [Crane’s] most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force.” Crane wrote:
The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.
Crane cited examples from William Blake and T. S. Eliot:
You ask me how compass, quadrant, and sextant “contrive” tides. I ask you how Eliot can possibly believe that “Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum!” . . . It is of course understood that a street-lamp simply can’t beat with a sound like a drum; but it often happens that images, themselves totally dissociated, when joined in the circuit of a particular emotion located with specific relation to both of them, conduce to great vividness and accuracy of statement in defining that emotion.
Crane then addressed in turn Monroe’s specific questions:
Dice bequeath an embassy, in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having “numbers” but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seem legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.
As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in his tribute to this exchange in 1997 “we should all be grateful [Monroe] had the curiosity and the temerity to draw Crane out so eloquently.” Monroe published “At Melville’s Tomb,” along with her exchange with Crane, in the October 1926 issue of Poetry.

Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes Monroe’s “Radio”); Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (includes Crane’s letter to Harriet Monroe)

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