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Friday, April 8, 2011

Christopher Benfey on Stephen Crane’s debut as a poet

Just six months after the sensation caused by the serialization of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane created a stir of a different kind when, in May 1895, the avant-garde Arts & Crafts publisher Copeland & Day brought out Black Riders and Other Lines, his first book of poems. In an exclusive interview with The Library of America Christopher Benfey, editor of Stephen Crane: Complete Poems (the latest volume in the American Poets Project series), sets the scene:
Crane wrote the sixty or so poems of Black Riders in a single period of creative intensity, during the first three months of 1894, when he was living hand to mouth as a freelance newspaper writer in New York City. It was like Rilke in Duino or Van Gogh at Arles, with the creative lightning striking again and again. Crane felt, at the time, that he could “turn the poetic spout on or off.” The book has a tight unity of form and focus (mainly brief, free-verse parables of an ironic bent). Crane was aiming to shock; in his writing he wanted, he said, to be “unmistakable.” And he achieved what he was after in Black Riders. Nobody else could have written poems like these. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, three lines of blistering warning about the self-fulfilling perils of paranoia:
A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other
LOA: Do you think Crane would be unhappy that most publishers today ignore the convention of printing the poems from Black Riders entirely in uppercase letters? If printed that way today we would read each poem as if it were shouted. Is that what Crane intended?
Benfey: It wasn’t Crane’s idea to print the poems entirely in capital letters, like newspaper headlines, but he loved the effect. His publishers, for some reason, called the layout “classical,” but the typological look of the poems is bracingly modern, like something out of E. E. Cummings or Mallarmé. Such a layout, as some critics have noted, insists on the written status of the poem, as opposed to seemingly orally based poetry like Whitman’s. I like to think that Crane wanted his poems to be delivered by the strongest and loudest possible means, and capital letters had that effect on his first readers, like amplification. To use them now, though, would run the risk of making the poems seem merely eccentric or gimmicky. And it’s by no means clear that Crane would want them printed that way.

The opening poem as it appeared in the original edition of Black Riders

Read the entire interview (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA volumes: Stephen Crane: Complete Poems (American Poets Project)

1 comment:

  1. From "The Red Badge of Courage":

    "At nightfall the column broke into regimental pieces, and the fragments went into the fields to camp. Tents sprang up like strange plants. Camp fires, like red, peculiar blossoms, dotted the night. … From this little distance the many fires, with the black forms of men passing to and fro before the crimson rays, made weird and satanic effects.”

    Even in his prose fiction, Crane had, to borrow from O'Neill, a touch of the poet.


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