and how they get here Words: and how they get here

By droppings on Thursday, May 4, 2000 - 08:35 pm:

    from *Exile's Return* by Malcolm Cowley. Remembering the poet Hart Crane.

    There would be a Sunday afternoon party on Tory Hill, near Patterson, New York, in Slater Brown's upainted and unremodeled farmhouse. I can't remember any of the jokes that were made, or why we laughed so hard at them; I can remember only the general atmosphere of youth and poverty and high spirits. Hart would be laughing twice as hard as the rest of us in the big, low-ceilinged kitchen; he would be drinking twice as much hard cider and contributing more than his share of the crazy metaphors and overblown epithets. Gradually he would fall silent and a little later we would find that he had disappeared. In lulls that began to interrupt the laughter, now Hart was gone, we would hear a new hubbub through the wall of the next room - the phonograph playing a Cuban rumba, the typewriter clacking simultaneously; then the phonograph would run down and the typewriter would stop while Hart changed the record, perhaps to a torch song, perhaps to Ravel's "Bolero." Sometimes he stamped across the room, declaiming to the four walls and the slow spring rain.

    An hour later, after the rain had stopped, he would appear in the kitchen or on the croquet court, his face brick-red, his eyes burning, his already iron-gray hair bristling straight up from his skull. He would be chewing a five-cent cigar which he had forgotten to light. In his hands would be two or three sheets of typewritten manuscript, with words crossed out and new lines scrawled in. "Read that," he would say. "Isn't that the *grrreatest* poem ever written!"

    We would read it obediently, Allen Tate perhaps making a profound comment. The rest of us would get practically nothing out of it except the rhythm like that of a tom-tom and a few startling images. But we would all agree that it was absolutely superb. In Hart's state of exaltation, there was nothing else we could say without driving him to rage or tears.

    But this story, which I have told before, contains neither ther real beginning nor the real end. I later discovered that Hart would have been meditating over that particular poem for months or even years, scribbling verses on pieces of paper that he carried in his pockets and meanwhile waiting for the moment of pure inspiration when he could put them all together...Hart tried to charm his inspiration out of its hiding place by drinking and playing the phonograph.

    As for the end of the story, it might be delayed for several weeks. Painfully, perseveringly - and dead sober - Hart would revise his new poem, clarifying its images, correcting its meter and searching through dictionaries and thesauruses for exactly the right word...Even after the poem had been completed, the manuscript mailed to *Poetry* or *Dial* and perhaps accepted, he would still have changes to make. In the formal sense, he was badly educated, having left high school before he was graduated, and having filled his head since then with an assortment of sometimes profound but uncoordinated knowledge. He was not even very intelligent, in the conventional sense of the word; as a problem-solving animal he was less than competent. But nobody I knew, and very few people in the history of literature, were willing to spend so much time perfecting a single poem to the moment of what seemed to be absolute rightness.

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