The poetry of homage is as old as poetry itself.
Hart Crane’s complex lyric on death and the sea has a greater resonance given his almost certain suicide when he jumped over the rail of the Orizaba, 10 miles east of the coast of Florida. Perhaps his paying homage to Herman Melville, in the poem At Melville’s Tomb, was a poetic device; or perhaps not, given that Melville, too, found the ocean to be that most fertile of metaphors.
“There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath,” Melville wrote.
These ‘awful stirrings’ are the beginning of metaphor, and also of death:
At Melville’s Tomb
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.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
My elegy for Hart Crane – a sonnet, no less – pays homage to his poetry, but also to his vision: volatile, nervous, romantic, more like the French symbolists than his fellow American writers.
He remains one of the least understood poets, opaque and dazzling. His curiously tragic life is now the subject of a film made by none other than James Franco. Not having seen the film, I can’t comment on it, but it’s good to see that Hart speaks to a new generation of readers: perhaps the first generation to really ‘get’ him.
This, then, is my own homage to Hart, a poet whose tragic life circumstances doubtless fed his poems. They also led to his death before the age of 33. One is always left wondering what a poet who had lived longer – Keats, say – would have gone on to write. But that is futile. We have to work with the poems left to us. And give them the honour due to them.
Hart Crane, 1899-1932
Prodigal, shucking off the first-class hell
of being you in bar and cheap hotel,
you leapt. The S.S. Orizaba churned
on anyway; propellers flensed and burned
the waters battering towards New York.
A fellow passenger, who saw you leap
and thrash, watched only for your body’s cork
to float up. As she shudders into sleep,
the juddering vessel, droning, is the bell
that sounds your verses, amplifies your voice,
American Rimbaud. Given the choice,
would you have gulped the broken world as well
in sober hopelessness? Your sailor’s voice
must first be lost in fatal tides to tell.