Note: Audio takes about 8 seconds to play…
Many Moons Ago, a poetry teacher of mine introduced me to the term “terminal aesthetic,” meaning a style that could go no further, having burned up all of its resources. It’s a great way to characterize the poet Hart Crane’s ambivalent appraisal of his literary forefather, T.S. Eliot. Crane spent his poetry career trying to remedy what he saw as Eliot’s failure to salvage anything from the modern world but cramped despair in The Waste Land. As Crane put it, Eliot’s masterwork was “so damned dead” and manifested “a refusal to see certain spiritual events and possibilities.” It’s probably safe to say that nearly everyone subjected to Eliot’s portentous verse has felt this way at one time or another. But Crane felt it and persevered; he tried to out-write The Waste Land with his own modernist epic, The Bridge.
The poet’s optimism was totally at odds with his brief, painful life. As David Dudley summed it up recently:
Crane’s short life was a train wreck—a teenage suicide attempt, followed by bitter estrangements from his mother, a Christian Scientist, and his father, a well-to-do Cleveland candy maker who disapproved of his son’s habits. Living as a semi-closeted gay man on the fringes of the cultural limelight in New York and Europe, Crane had affairs with sailors, drank too much, got in fights, and couldn’t hold a job.
Crane’s depression and feelings of failure drove him to suicide in 1932, at age 32: he leapt into the Gulf of Mexico from the steam ship Orizaba (most think; he left no note). His tombstone is inscribed with the words “lost at sea.”
That phrase also captures how so many readers feel when faced with Crane’s rococo verse. With its archaic (some would say pretentious) diction, and obscure allusions nested inside oblique references, the word “difficult” may be an understatement. But Crane’s work has had many champions, among them, Tennessee Williams. As an epigraph to A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams chose these lines from Crane’s “The Broken Tower”:
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
The exquisite rhythms of Crane’s lines—Shakespearean by way of Eliot—lend themselves so well to reading aloud. Above, then, we have the privilege of hearing Crane’s defender Williams read “The Broken Tower” in his reedy, Southern voice. Follow the text of the poem in the video as Williams reads. Both the audio above and that below—of Williams reading Crane’s hypnotic “The Hurricane”—come from a nearly-impossible-to-find 1960 LP from Caedmon Records. Thanks again, Internet, and thanks to Don Yorty, who posted these videos.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness