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Friday, June 22, 2012

New York State Writers Hall of Fame: Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Toni Morrison greets fellow Hall of Fame inductees
Pete Hamill and E. L. Doctorow
Ryan Brenizer Photography
On June 5, The Empire State Center for the Book, New York’s affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, held its annual gala at the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan. The Center is committed to fostering reading and greater appreciation of the literary arts, and among its initiatives is the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2010 to recognize New York–based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The centerpiece of this year’s gala was the induction of the fourteen-member class of 2012, which included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Hall of Fame inductees Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Over the coming weeks, The Reader’s Almanac will present remarks offered at the induction ceremony, in which literary scholars, critics, and descendants of the writers honored the inductees. We begin with Langdon Hammer’s tribute to the poet Hart Crane. Hammer is professor of English at Yale University, where he teaches modern and contemporary poetry. He has written and edited several books on Crane, including volume #168 in the Library of America series, Hart Crane: Complete Poetry & Selected Letters.
Langdon Hammer offers a tribute to Hart Crane
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Like many New York writers, Hart Crane was born somewhere else—in Garretsville, Ohio, in his case. He came here to live, quite alone, in 1916. He was 17, just a little older than the century, and he felt obscurely but intensely (Crane’s feelings were usually obscure and intense) that his fate and that of the century were deeply connected with each other and with the capital of modern life, New York City.

On New Year’s Eve of that first year in the city, the new arrival wrote home from East 15th Street: “My Dear Father, I have just been out for a long ride up Fifth Ave. on an omnibus. It is very cold and clear, and the marble facades of the marvelous mansions shone like crystal in the sun. . . . The room I have now is a bit too small, so after my week is up, I shall seek out another place near here, for I like the neighborhood. The houses are so different here, that it seems most interesting, for a while at least, to live in one.”

Crane was peripatetic and lived in many houses in the city. The address that mattered most was 110 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn. It was there he began the love affair of his life with a Danish sailor named Emil Opffer, and where, “living in the shadow of the bridge,” as he put it, he conceived of his epic poem about the visionary promise of America, The Bridge. “That window,” he said about his window facing Brooklyn Bridge, “is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, and the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning or evening,—rain, snow or sun, it is everything from the mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related and in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it.”

The Bridge begins with an ecstatic address to Brooklyn Bridge in which its Gothic arches suggest a new religion and a new image of divinity. The bridge rises up above not simply New York but the whole of the continent, even the Midwest Crane left behind to make his life here. This stanza comes from the proem:

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
That’s gorgeous poetry, as stirring as any language an American has authored. But it isn’t easy poetry, and The Bridge was a puzzle and a problem when it arrived in most reviewers’ mailboxes. Crane died, a suicide, in 1932. He knew what he had achieved in his poetry. But he must have feared no one would ever recognize it, including the most important audience he wrote for, literary New York. I can just imagine, therefore, how gratified he would be by this recognition tonight. Hart Crane wrote the great poem of New York, and it is right to name him one of New York’s greats.

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