Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Little cubes from the bones of drowned men

An interesting piece in the last NYRB by Colm Toibin on Hart Crane. I was fascinated by the sequence of observations in opening--here are the relevant paragraphs:
In 1926, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem "At Melville's Tomb," Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his 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. The first stanza reads:
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
"Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else)," Monroe wrote. Crane in his reply admitted that
as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.
In his next paragraph he emphasized, however, that there was nothing aleatory in his method. "This may sound," he wrote,
as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. 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.
He then took Monroe through some lines of the poem, including "The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath/An embassy." "Dice bequeath an embassy," he wrote,
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 seems 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.
Monroe had commented as well on the opening of the last stanza:
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides....
"Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant," she wrote, "contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe."

"Hasn't it often occurred," Crane replied,
that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured?
In the same letter, he quoted from Blake and T.S. Eliot to show how the language of the poetry he wrote and admired did not simply ignore logic, it sought to find a logic deeply embedded in metaphor and suggestion. This poetry, he made clear, did not follow the lazy path dictated by the unconscious, or allow the outlandish or the merely associative to triumph, but was deliberate and exact, even though it belonged "to another order of experience than science." He worked toward both "great vividness and accuracy of statement," even if it might seem to some, including Monroe, that the vivid triumphed over the accurate.


  1. It's interesting that you should find this interesting: you've said yourself that you don't like poetry that doesn't follow the rules of prose.

  2. Well, I try to keep an open mind!

    I may have been imprecise in my phrasing, btw--what I object to is poetry that does not seem to have been written with the same level of precision and attention to detail that one would expect from good-quality essayistic prose. Obviously the rules of the language game are different in each case, but one would expect poetry to require greater precision.

    (I don't think that the Crane lines would have flagged my editorial attention, I like them and in this case his reasoning seems to me entirely persuasive though perhaps of the ex post facto kind--but I also think that any poet or indeed writer more generally benefits from having an editor who asks this kind of question & presses the writer to articulate his or her rationale.)