The Poem That Changed My Life: On Hart Crane's "Eternity"

Written by

Gerald Stern
Contributor Page

Year

2012

The idea of choosing a single poem as one that has informed my poetry is both fascinating and absurd. I have never been asked to discuss one transformative poem before. The question traditionally has been "What writer, or writers, influenced you?," and the reference might be, in various ways, to the work and the life of that poet, a terrifying and confusing question, especially because, in my case, I always had to account for Whitman—his long walks, his death by water, and his biblical rhythms.

I've alluded to, I've given credit to Dylan Thomas, Auden, Roethke, Dickinson, Donne, Burns, and Blake; to Coleridge, Hopkins, Schwartz, Rukeyser, Berryman, Yeats, Rilke, and Cummings; to Pound, Milton, Jeffers, Frost, Hardy, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Stevens, and Browning, in various, sometimes surprising, ways, as well as to prose writers, musicians, and painters. However, I've never identified a single poem as the causus profundis. If I try to do that with the writers I mentioned, there is a very quick flowing away. I know ten of Thomas's poems by heart and at least five of Yeats's, but no single poem "informed" or "transformed" my work. I might have said Roethke if the question were otherwise. I know fairly extensive bits and pieces of Auden, but, except maybe for "In Praise of Limestone," I cannot credit one poem in particular. If it were D. H. Lawrence, I wouldn't say snakes or elephants but probably "Blue Gentians." For Blake, it would be "London"; Coleridge, "Frost at Midnight"; Shakespeare, the last speeches of Lear; Bishop, "The Moose"; Williams, either "Desert Music" or "Asphodel." But, to my surprise, when trying to answer the question of which poem changed my life, I kept opening and reopening Hart Crane and, for various reasons, I kept going back to the poem "Eternity," the poem that is, to me, both essential and pivotal, even if more the latter than the former.

Crane has two almost distinct approaches to the poem, two methodologies or even styles. One is through the use of symbol and metaphor, in which he abandoned conventional logic, yet there is a fierce, driven rhetoric and a kind of faux teleology that implies both narrative and biography. Such poems are often rhymed and moved forward by an extensive use of conjunctions and clauses—modifications—as if the stories—whatever they are—are urgent. I have read these poems for years, over and over, as if the words were musical notes and the "message" was purely emotional and could not be told in words, even if words were the very medium. This is the mode Crane is known for, and it is the mode of the poems he sent to the confused and anxious founder of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, which he explained in his letter to her, written in 1924.

In the second mode—we are talking two—Crane broke his own rules and used conventional logic, as he described it, to write either tender, short, often nostalgic poems or the long, disciplined narratives that are so present in The Bridge, his epic. He continued using the two styles in his very late poems and "Eternity," which appeared in 1926 or 1927, the poem that has so moved me all these years, partly combines the two modes, though it is truer to the conventional, the logical, than it is to the irrationalist position he so championed. I remember one commentator's describing a "decline of vision" in Crane's late movements, but, as I say, both modes were always there, in the beginning as well as the end. "Chaplinesque," "Sunday Morning Apple," and "My Grandmother's Love Letters," all examples of the second mode, are there in White Buildings, his first book, and "The Broken Tower," one of the great ecstatic and "illogical" poems of our time, appeared in 1932, after his death.

The language of "Eternity," the state of mind of the poet who wrote it, was—at the time of writing certainly— somewhat gay, peaceful, and determined; it takes place on the day after chaos (a severe hurricane, in this case). The sky is streaked with color, and the sleeves rolled up. The town had been torn to pieces by the storm, everything is dislocated, but the voice of the poem is logical, if a bit ironic and goalridden. It is not a poem of gloom or doom or despair. It is mythical but not introspective; it is expressionistic but clear. If the reader looks carefully at the poem, she sees a narrative, a progression, and familiar social and political behavior. It is a narrative, but it is lyrical, or it combines the modes, and in its midst, and implied throughout, it is mystical, even if the mysticism is not evanescent nor of the fin de siècle breed, any fin de siècle—theirs, ours, yours. Nor does it—gratefully—depend on any of the given religions. It happens in broad daylight.

The name of the town is Nueva Gerona, and it is on the Isle of Pines, which the United States had seized after the Spanish-American War and was in the process of returning to Cuba. Crane's family owned a house there, as did many Americans—large, run-down, almost roofless and overgrown with dead trees. "Aunt Sally" was the frail toothless elderly widow of the caretaker. She lived there alone and hadn't seen anyone from Crane's family for five years. In the poem, Aunt Sally is referred to as "The old woman," though there's a reference to her later as "Sarah," the more formal being more appropriate at that intense point in the poem.

The style of "Eternity," as Crane's biographer Paul Mariani says, "is as compact and clear as Williams's." It is reportorial and almost matter-of-fact, though it has a heightened quality and a kind of public voice that is quite different from Williams. Furthermore, at the very heart of the poem, the mysterious white horse appears, something almost out of the Apocalypse. Its sudden appearance, in the midst of the wreckage and the altered atmosphere, if it is visionary and abrupt, has nothing of the conventional supernatural about it. I should point out that the white horse—is his name Eternity?—doesn't appear alone but arrives with the other somewhat maddened horses, including Don, the family horse, free of their normal constraints and subject to the chaos. A mule also appears, stumbling and dying. In real life, whatever that is, Crane, according to Mariani, tried to force the mule into service with a stick but reversed it in the poem. The ending is subtle and ironic, out of The New York Times, President Coolidge sending down a battleship in which 2,000 loaves of bread were baked, doctors shot ahead (in planes), the fever checked, and Crane ending up in Mack's—"Drinking Bacardi and talking U. S. A." The mule is domestic and stubborn, half ass, half horse, and its presence creates an extreme contrast with the (godly?) white horse. As to form, the poem is in a relaxed iamb and uneven stanzas, with some respect for end rhyme.

But what moves me, in "Eternity" and elsewhere in Crane's poetry, is a voice that is altogether sane and trustworthy with a great soul behind it that is deeply intelligent, knowledgeable, reasonable, kind, and generous. Some, when they talk about Crane, emphasize his drinking, his chaotic life, his self-doubt, and the dangers of his sexual life, but he was able to manage these things, even though he died at 32, and create a poetry that was tender, attentive, wise, and radically original. It's all of one piece whatever the logic of the poems and whether easily available or outrageously difficult. It is in the prose as well as the poetry, particularly in Crane's letters, which are Keats-like in their sensibility. I don't find such intelligence and kindness in Eliot or Pound or Stevens or Williams or Auden. Or Lowell. And only sometimes in Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Rukeyser—or Hardy.

These things I am, of course, not claiming for myself. God forbid! I am praising what I like in Crane, and I am finding what is—for me—something of a connection. If I do not, in the main, write as he did, I am deeply attracted to two things: first, that central sense of decency, sanity, and what I could call respect for the common order, and second, that allowance for the mystery that underlies our existence and Crane's willingness—indeed, his desire—to account for it. He writes in "Eternity," after the white horse suddenly appears, "—I can't account for him," and the inability to account, as well as the desire for accountability, is critical in the poetry.

Of my own poems that may have a kinship with Crane's "Eternity," the first that come to mind are "Baja," written sometime before 1984, and "The Bull Roarer," sometime before 1992. Both poems play with the idea of a rational, civilized soul confronting something non-rational and powerful. I certainly selected them because of their relationship with the dynamics of "Eternity." In "Baja," a visitor, a tourist, confronts the "other"—mosquitoes, in this case—who simultaneously have power over us and special knowledge—spirits that they are—and yet are subject to our knowledge and power.

Here is the way it starts:

These tiny Mexican mosquitoes are like lost souls
looking for blood among the white visitors
in their own land. They come to lead us through
some four or five old trees. They stoop to bite
our hands, they make that wailing sound I live
in terror of, they sing in our ears, they walk
between the seams, they reach for the drink
   they love,
they bend half over drinking,
they walk along the sand and through the flowers,
they look for work, they are looking for work,
   they pound
on the windows of our casita shouting trabajo,
trabajo, casting mournful eyes on the sea wrack,
touching the broken sewer line and pointing
at the broken steps.

The poem ends:

                        ...take care of yourself
when you are in New York, when you are sleeping,
when you are dying, there is a life to come—
or maybe he said, I love you more than anything,
have pity on me, please help me, take
   me with you,
I want the chance to live again, I can't
believe how large your limes were, oh I can't
believe how huge and clean your markets were;
take me with you, take me with you, wailing
and howling in front of me, in back of me,
pulling me down, the way they do, a swarm
of spirits, stumbling, pushing; I had to run,
I had to slam the door, I stood there freezing,
blood on the walls where I killed them, blood on
   my palms,
my forehead foolishly pounding, my two
   hands shaking,
all alone in the darkness, a man of the heart
making plans to the end, a screen for the terror,
a dish for the blood, a little love for strangers,
a little kindness for insects, a little pity for
   the dead.

"The Bull-Roarer" starts with my father uncharacteristically drunk, on a farm in West Virginia, joining nine other men (a minyan) surrounding and murdering a screaming calf with knives and ice picks and ends with them chasing each other with the tail.

Here is the ending:

—I think that tail goes back to the Paleolithic.
I think our game has gory roots—some cave,
or field, they chased each other—or they
   were grimmer,
pinning that tail, some power was amassed,
as well as something ludicrous, always that,
the tail was different from the horns, or paws,
it was the seat of shame—and there was envy,
not just contempt, but envy—horns a man has,
and he has furry hands and he has a mane,
but never a tail. I remember dimly
a toy we had, a kind of flattened stone,
curved at the sides, with a long rope at one end
we whirled around to make a thundering noise.
This was a "bull-roarer"; we made thunder
and felt the power in our shoulders and legs,
I saw this toy in southern Italy;
I saw children throwing it over their heads
as if they were in central Australia
or ancient Europe somewhere, in a meadow,
forcing the gods to roar. They call it Uranic,
a heavenly force, sometimes almost a voice,
locked up in that whirling stone, dear father.

Crane is always with me, and whatever I wrote, short poem or long, strange or unstrange—his voice, his tone, his sense of form, his respect for life, his love of the word, his vision have affected me. But I don't want—in any way—to exploit or appropriate this amazing poet whom I am, after all, so different from, he who may be, finally, the great poet—in English—of the twentieth century.