Essays — June 1, 2012 13:10 — 2 Comments

The Breaking Towers: on Hart Crane’s Crumbling Muses – Mischa Willett

No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur.  This is another of the monsters I had for nurse, whom I have wasted.  I am myself a part of what is real, and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear, or ever shall.
                                                                                                                          -Wallace Stevens


It is not as though one can comfortably recommend a film like James Franco’s The Broken Tower (Focus World 2011) which features multiple suicide attempts, language to which we would usually append the misnomer “strong,” and gay sex scenes that make Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features 2005) seem tame by contrast.  Furthermore, its visual style will not appeal to most viewers: filmed in black and white, often with handheld cameras that jerk the screen around, quick cuts and extreme close-ups, and indeed, it is not meant to appeal broadly.  Though it stars Franco, a Hollywood A-lister who also wrote and directed the film, it is specifically an art-house release, meant for the sort of viewer who doesn’t mind long stretches of silence, or a narrative that thins to breaking, so that entire episodes in the poet’s life are suggested by, for example, a lighthouse he sees in the distance, rather than through conventional storytelling.  For all that though, it is an important film, and a brave one, because it is beautiful, and dares so to be.

We, yesterday’s posterity, have trouble with our filing system regarding great artists who were terrible people, among whom Hart Crane, the modernist poet who is the film’s subject can be said to count.  The tendency is to elevate them to the pantheon of geniuses whose achievements outweigh the shattered lives they left in the fierce wake of their drives to greatness.  La Vie en Rose (TF1 2007) was such a film, excusing the singer who treated everyone in her life with demonic disregard, because, well, she sang pretty.  Alternatively, the filmmaker sometimes judges the subject, as in Pollack (2000) about the painter Jackson Pollack, which adopts a posture of: so what if he made great paintings? Look what a mean drunk guy he was!

Franco’s depiction of the poet Hart Crane does neither thing.  “Honest” is the word most reviewers will use about the film, whether they know about Crane’s life or not, and that’s right: you can tell that, for all its style, the film tries to get out of the way and give you Hart Crane the Man (the son, the lover, the worker, the poet, the friend) without either romanticizing his broken life or holding him to a higher standard than most because of his social role as an artist.

In fact, Crane wasn’t much of a builder.  Though he was obsessed with architecture–his books are White Buildings (1926) and The Bridge (1930)–rhetorical dazzle, rather than what we might call “structural integrity” forms the works’ wobbly foundation.  From the very beginning until the present day, there has been nothing like consensus either among literary people or among the general public about his achievement.  Harold Bloom (the most widely-read literary critic alive, if not the most respected) is his constant champion, but without his constantly bringing it up, we might not discuss Crane much.  Whenever the subject is raised, most readers look at his work as juvenile and embarrassing, awkward, grandiloquent, posturing, and obscure.  Writes William Logan, “Crane was the great might-have-been of American poetry;” writes David Dudley, “[people] consider his work either grandly flawed or completely terrible.”

This is not true of all, or even most poets.  Like him or not, nearly everyone agrees about the significance of T.S. Eliot’s work; likewise Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and the other great poets of the Modernist era. But Crane’s place in the canon is always a flint, sparking violent debate.  People hate Hart Crane, and seem to like hating him. Say even that Crane is a decent poet and a dozen thinkers will write in to say that you’ve finally lost it; will wonder even whether you’re being sincere, or simply provocative.

The film is based on Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane (from which it takes its title), which is strange only because Mariani, as a biographer, gives the poet just the kind of ethereal, inspired position the film refuses: Mariani puts him on a cloud from which Franco pulls him earthward.  To hear Paul Mariani tell it, Hart Crane never crafted a poem in his life; he was rather a Romantic Aeolian harp, upon which so many impressions blew.  In Mariani’s biography of Crane’s brief life, the central creator, the real character, is not Crane, but his Muse, who comes and goes in changing forms.

The biography begins, appropriately, when Crane begins writing poems.  Even in these first attempts, Mariani cites a muse,  Crane’s mother, who Mariani calls “his first and last” (30).  This is the first of Mariani’s overstatements and unfortunately, not his last. Mariani will play up the role of Crane’s mother throughout.  In this case, he is not only shifting the burden of artistic responsibility from Crane’s shoulders onto those of a muse figure, but his selection for that muse is not even a very likely candidate.  Later he will say, contradicting his earlier pronouncement, “[Crane] was always a poet for whom love had served as his first muse”  (400).  Although this gets closer to the truth than that his mother was “first muse,” it too draws typical artist stereotypes.  As to his mother’s being “the last,” the title must be usurped from the more obvious choice, Peggy Cowley, to whom he was engaged at the time of his suicide, with whom he was involved in the only important heterosexual relationship of his life, and alongside whom he’d written his last poems.  Mariani’s implicit justification for his choice of Crane’s mother as “first muse” reduces to a pun, (one of many) into which he reads psychological intention.  Crane’s last words were reportedly, “I am utterly disgraced” (422).  Mariani takes this to mean that “on some deep level he had not forgotten [his mother,]” whose name was “Grace.”  Mariani argues that even this statement has two meanings, both references to his mother: the pun on her name and a last lament for the fact that he’d fallen out of her good graces.  This second meaning is again contrary to the obvious choice, that he was found in disgrace, having been stripped and beaten, flat broke, and with a home country embarrassed to accept him back.  One reviewer of The Broken Tower suggests that misrepresentations such as this are linguistically motivated; “we watch with mingled horror and embarrassment as [Mariani] hurls himself from another syntactic precipice” (Ormsby 9).

From the beginning to the end, Mariani writes Crane as “inspiration’s slave (406).  One can see why Mariani passes over Crane’s own creative sweating in favor of a portrait of a tabulae rasa on which poems are written, full sprung from the mind of God.  It gets around the evidences that Crane himself was not intelligent or educated enough to have written the poems he did; he must have received them from muses, must have overheard them.  Information gleaned from letters shows Crane working often in a sort of Bacchic frenzy– “but the muse was with him this time, he was working ecstatic”– and only when circumstances were conducive, habits which lend them selves to romantic language, “he could feel the floodtide of inspiration rising” (203, 153).

Critics have condemned such explanations of Crane’s personal life.  “To judge from Crane’s biographers,” writes one, “sex seems to have served Crane as a fillip toward that Dionysiac state in which he could write his best verse” (Ormsby 6). It is not Mariani’s choice of “fillip toward that Dionysiac state,” promiscuity (which Mariani outlines “like some enflamed voyeur of Crane’s sexual episodes,”) to which I raise this objection, but that Mariani has him unflaggingly needing one (Ormsby 9).  Why must poets always be drunk on something in order to compose?

When Crane has no unifying message in his poetry, as in White Buildings or when Mariani can’t read what it would be, he has Crane’s muse evanescent: “no sooner had the muse returned than she too melted away” (89).  Sometimes she is as an unfaithful lover, a Christ, or a Eurydice, “his muse had disappeared into the shadowy canyons, knocking elsewhere[1] ” (125).  At such times, Mariani’s Crane is a boy, completely in the muse’s hands.  Like proud parents, Mariani writes, “the fates were smiling on his decision,” or, like his absentee father, “the muse he’d waited for daily would not come” (118, 391).  Lest Mariani leave Crane completely devoid of personal power, he has him busily setting a sacrificial altar, hoping the divine fire will ignite it and has his personal life and choices as tinder: “perfect virtue and health did not always encourage the muse[2] ” (211).  Crane’s poetic power is usurped even when he lays the sacrifice, goes through proper channels trying to compose.  When he sets himself to the task of writing poetry he is criticized: “the muse was best approached without an upraised axe” (262)   Again he has to become the scene of writing rather than the writer: “well, he wanted that elusive form and he was willing to wait for it to show itself” (85).

By the time Crane begins work on his long poem, “The Bridge,” his muse(s) take on a more directed shape.  Mariani narrates, “finally he reached the point where he was living inside his poem, allowing it to teach him” (233).  Now, Crane moves from being under the control of an evanescent muse, to being under the control of the Bridge.  At the first pause in Crane’s compositional frenzy, Mariani has him a Frankenstein, trying to make his creature live, or a frustrated engineer stuck with a stalled train: “the bridge refused to inch forward” (256).  As he gets the poem into a kind of shape, the rhetoric of animation becomes more explicit. “He kept staring at The Bridge lying there on the page before him,” and “blinkless, The Bridge stared back” (264).  Soon the poem is completely out of his hands; the monster lives!  He is still dependent on something outside, handmaiden now to his own poem’s whims; “the bridge lay down and slept” (273).

When the poem is not “alive” it becomes a machine, and with that, mechanical images for the muse, still avoiding naming Crane a poet-creator.  First he is the lucky vagabond, who “had really found something in the scrapheap of the Bridge” (300).  Then, when Mariani has him speaking in his own voice (from letters) he is making something, describing the Bridge in terms of the modern advancements of his subject.  “I’ll try to add a few more paragraphs to the flying machine,” he writes, just in the middle of the “Cutty Sark” (Kitty Hawk) section (325).  When writing the failed attempts of the famed Wright Bros., Crane writes of his poem as though it where that same ambitious but doomed machine.   Picking up on this technique, Mariani says of Crane’s final poem, “Broken Tower,” “it was the first real poem the muses sent in years” (400).  This is a reference to the telegram, a new technology which Crane has just had his first experience with, in the form of wire from his father.  This first poem since the completion of the Bridge sees Crane immediately leaning again on the graces of a muse; he has been transferred from the power of his youthful dependence on inspiration to the sweeping power of a machine he created, back to the hands of fate.

Mariani always has “Crane hearing fragments of some lost melody, light falling though sepia shadow” (64).  Why all this talk of the muse?  Perhaps it is Mariani’s way of avoiding, or weighing in on, the debate as to whether Crane was “an inspired idiot.” (Ramsey 278).  Without being so negative as that, he has managed to paint Crane as the canvas more than as the artist himself (and has therefore, by “looming present on every page, interweaving Crane’s words with his own, and putting words into his mouth,” shown what true artistry would be like, had Crane the training to see it (Ormsby 9).  Another possibility is to read these muse sightings as attempts to picture Crane as leaning on Greek culture/inspiration and thereby to identify him “on some deep level” with the High Romantics, who had similar leanings.  One understands the temptation.  Crane did have to have everything “just so” before composing– a pattern which lends itself to the reductive setting a sacrifice for the muse, evanescent, to visit.

A section of one of his letters can serve to articulate what I imagine would be Crane’s discomfort with his treatment at the hands of Mariani who gives his poetics completely over to the muse’s visitation: “unmellow ladies result in your unbalance–even the best of them produce unprofitable effects of Gentlemen who put themselves too much in their hands,” Crane writes (Letters 87).  While Mariani’s biography is helpful in many respects, and interesting inasmuch as he mimics Crane’s writing style at concurrent points in the narrative of his subject’s life, this book shows him guilty of the same doubt in Crane’s power that always plagued the poet, and ultimately took his life.

The film meanwhile, will no doubt garner some controversy, though really, it isn’t a controversial film.  It is spare, and sympathetic, and lovely to behold.  The emphasis on the photography is thoughtful, and the space given over to the poetry–at one point Franco reads the entire long-poem “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen” aloud, taking some ten minutes of the film–is generous and respects the original medium in a way that’s rarely done; in a way in fact, were this a regular release, that would have been impossible.

One thing that often gets said about Crane though, is that, in spite of his work’s many embarrassing faults, perhaps even because of them, the poetry is uniquely American in a way that no other work but Whitman’s has managed to be.  That is, if something about his ambition makes the reader cringe–something about Franco’s in this adaptation will no doubt do likewise– something else about it, in both cases, inspires though the sheer audacity of the attempt.  Under this rubric, even Mariani’s flinging “himself from another syntactic precipice” has something Icarian about it: that same something that saw the first skyscrapers, made possible by first elevator (which term is worth thinking about), spanned in such grand fashion Crane’s beloved Brooklyn East River, and saw the first manned flight.  It isn’t as though any of these works are unmitigated triumphs, but that in their recklessness lies a kind of bravery, which, to paraphrase Crane’s last line in Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge, lends us myths about godhood, even if that would-be god is only a water-bound boy whose terrified shout sounds, as he falls, like some far off and half-forgotten song.

Works Cited:

Dudley, David. Saving Hart Crane. John Hopkins Magazine 2011.

Logan, William. “The Hart Crane Controversy.” Poetry Magazine 2008.

Mariani, Paul. (1999). The Broken Tower: A life of Hart Crane.  New York: Norton .

Ormsby, Eric. (2001). “The last Elizabethan: Hart Crane at 100.”  The New Criterion; February                         01, pp. 3-27.

Ramsey, Roger. (2000). “A Poetics for the Bridge.” Twentieth Century Literature: Summer 00,                         pp. 278-291.

[1] Mariani’s reading many possibilities, leaving many meanings for the metaphor like this is exactly in the vein of Crane’s recent poems.

[2] Given that Mariani thinks Crane a Bacchant, this setting becomes a justification for his alcoholic and self-destructive behavior.  If “perfect health doesn’t encourage the muse,” we are left to infer, wine and free sex will.  This though, only if Bacchus is the muse in question, which is probably Mariani’s point, Crane having just written The Wine Menagerie.


Mischa Willett is currently serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, though he usually teaches writing and literature at the University of Washington.  His work has recently appeared in Rio Grande ReviewBooks and Culture, Inch, Basalt, and several other books and journals. Additionally, he is host of the popular podcast Poems for the People.


  1. oh mar says:

    … so is there a biography that you do recommend? Mariani’s central premise and reliance on the muse as axis about which to perceive a creative life seems to be too intrusive on the effort to understand Crane. If that is a fair characterization of the book, I would love to know one that I might read in instead.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney