Exile's
        Return

Hart Crane
Exile's
Return

Exile's Return

From earlier days I remember how Hart Crane used to write his poems. There would be a Sunday-afternoon party on Tory Hill, near Patterson, New York, just across the state line from Sherman, Connecticut. Besides Hart there might be eight or ten of us present: the Tates, the Josephsons, the Cowleys, the Browns--or perhaps Bob Coates and Peter Blume, both curly redheads, the novelist Nathan Asch and Jack Wheelwright with his white week-end shoes and kempt and ruly hair; at one time or another all of them lived in the neighborhood. The party would be held, like others, in the repaired but unpainted and unremodeled farmhouse that Bill Brown had bought shortly after his marriage. When Bill was making the repairs, with Hart as his carpenter's helper, they had received a visit from Uncle Charlie Jennings, the former owner, an old-fashioned, cider-drinking New Englander who lived across the line in Sherman. Uncle Charlie had the plans explained to him and said, "I'm glad to see you an't putting in one of those bathrooms. I always said they was a passing fad." That was one of the stories told on a Sunday afternoon. I can't remember the other stories or why we laughed at them so hard; I can remember only the general atmosphere of youth and poverty and good humor.

Exile's Return

But that is neither the beginning nor the real end of the story. Hart, as I later discovered, would have been meditating over that particular poem for months or even years, scribbling lines on pieces of paper that he carried in his pockets and meanwhile waiting for the moment of genuine inspiration when he could put it all together. In that respect he reminded me of another friend, Jim Butler, a painter and a famous killer of woodchucks, who instead of shooting at them from a distance with a high-powered rifle and probably missing them, used to frighten them into their holes and wait until they came out again. Sometimes, he said, when they were slow about it he used to charm them by playing a mouth organ. In the same way Hart tried to charm his inspiration out of its hiding place with a Cuban rumba and a pitcher of hard cider.

Exile's Return

Hart drank to write: he drank to invoke the visions that his poems are intended to convey. But the recipe could be followed for a few years at the most, and it was completely effective only for two periods of about a month each, in 1926 and 1927, when working at top speed he finished most of the poems included in The Bridge. After that more and more alcohol was needed, so much of it that when the visions came he was incapable of putting them on paper. He drank in Village speakeasies and Brooklyn waterfront dives; he insulted everyone within hearing or shouted that he was Christopher Marlowe; then waking after a night spent with a drunken sailor, he drank again to forget his sense of guilt. He really forgot it, for the moment. By the following afternoon all the outrageous things he had done at night became merely funny, became an epic misadventure to be embroidered--"And then I began throwing furniture out the window," he would say with an enormous chuckle. Everybody would laugh and Hart would pound the table, calling for another bottle of wine. At a certain stage in drunkenness he gave himself and others the illusion of completely painless brilliance; words poured out of him, puns, metaphors, epigrams, visions; but soon the high spirits would be mingled with obsessions--"See that man staring at us, I think he's a detective"--and then the violence would start all over again, to be followed next day by the repentance that became a form of boasting. In this repeated process there was no longer a free hour for writing down his poems, or a week or a month in which to revise them.

Exile's Return

One of my last serious talks with him must have taken place November 1929. Hart had come back from Paris early that summer after getting into a fight with the police and spending a week in prison; his rich friend Harry Crosby had hired a lawyer for him, paid his fine and given him money for the passage home. The Crosbys' little publishing house, the Black Sun Press, had undertaken to issue a limited edition of The Bridge, and Hart had spent the summer and fall trying to finish the group of poems he had started five years before. He had worked desperately in his sober weeks, although they had been interspersed with drinking bouts. One afternoon I arrived at the Turner house to find Peter Blume sitting on Hart's chest and Bill Brown sitting on his feet; he had been smashing the furniture and throwing his books out the window and there was no other way to stop him. Hart was gasping between his clenched teeth, "You can kill me--but you can't--destroy--The Bridge. It's finished--it's on the Bremen--on its way--to Paris."

For the rest of the week he was sober and busy cleaning up the wreckage of his room. I called one day to take him for a walk. Hart began telling me about the Crosbys: Caresse was beautiful and gay; Harry was mad in a genial fashion; he would do anything and everything that entered his mind. They were coming to New York in December and Hart was eager for to meet them. . . . We stumbled in the frozen ruts of the road that led up Hardscrabble Hill. I had always refrained from interfering with Hart's life, but at last I was making the effort give him good advice. I said, bringing the words out haltingly that he had been devoting himself to the literature of ecstasy and that it involved more of a psychological strain than most writers could stand. Now, having finished The Bridge, perhaps he might shift over to the literature of experience, as Goethe had done (I was trying to persuade him by using great examples). It might be years before he was ready to undertake another group of poems as ambitious as those he had just completed. In the meantime he might cultivate his talent for writing quiet and thoughtful prose.

Hart cut me short. "Oh, you mean that I shouldn't drink so much."

Yes, I said after an uncomfortable pause, I had meant that partly and I had also meant that his drinking was, among other things, the result of a special attitude toward living and writing. If he changed the attitude and tried to write something different he would feel less need of intoxication. Hart looked at me sullenly and did not answer; he had gone so far on the path toward self-destruction that none of his friends could touch him any longer. He was more lost and driven than the others, and although he kept fleeing toward distant havens of refuge he felt in his heart that he could not escape himself. That night I dreamed of him and woke in the darkness feeling that he was already doomed, already dead.

Exile's Return

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Hart Crane
Hart Crane