How does one happen to write a poem, where does it come from? That is the question asked by the psychologists or the geneticists of poetry.
Sonnets of The Blood (Excerpt)
On the first read of Words for Hart Crane, its hard to tell if it is intended as a homage. an ode to a departed friend or a put down. It maybe because its likely Lowell intended it be both. There are certain words, in certain poems, whose meaning and context can be pivot points of understanding. For someone who prided himself on craftsmanship, Lowell’s use of Catullus redivivus is interesting. Catullus was a Latin poet in the late Roman empire, who in some ways was one of the first “confessional” poets, writing about his own life experience, rather than gods, goddesses and heroes. Inferring that Hart was the “Catullus” of his generation and the Shelley, sets him in esteemed company, but does it imply he was also outdated? Is it intended as a compliment? I am not sure. Potentially unravelling this sonnet further requires a little history.
Although Alan Tates legacy is mostly tied to his influence at Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and the University of Minnesota, his literary influence was much broader through friends and colleagues. After graduating from Vanderbilt, Alan Tate moved to New York City where he became good friends with Hart Crane. The two of them and Tate’s soon to be wife Caroline Gordon moved from Greenwich Village to a house in Patterson, New York (home of William Carlos Williams). The three of them lived together for several years and shortly after, Caroline and Tate married and Caroline gave birth to their daughter. Though their marriage was bumpy, they largely stuck it out, despite divorcing and remarrying and separating again over the years. Crane, sadly did not, stick it out. He died while on a ship in 1932 at the age of 33 in the Caribbean by throwing himself overboard. The connections between Hart Crane, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman and Robert Lowell are intricate. There is a quadrangle that runs from Vanderbilt, to Kenyon to Princeton, Yale and Harvard and the University of Minnesota where these men moved, sometimes interchangeably, during their careers.
When Lowell was dropped off by Merrill Moore on the door step of Alan Tate’s home in the 1930’s, it wasn’t a two bedroom flat of a penniless professor. It was at the steps of a charming 185 acre Tennessee estate called Benfolly, which Tate’s brother had purchased for him after making a fortune on coal. Benfolly was one of the centers of American literature in its day, a place of comfort for frequent visits by Ford Madox Ford, Edmund Wilson, Louise Bogan, Stark Young, Malcolm Cowley and his wife, John Ransom and his wife and Robert Penn Warren and his wife. Talk about an amazing book group. It sounds like a bushel of fun!
Students like Lowell and Randall Jarrel, who had the good fortune to be allowed into this literary and stimulating circle, realized the incredible opportunity that was opened for them. Alan Tate is quoted multiple times that the only thing you can take as a reader and as a writer are the words on the page. What does something mean? There is no one meaning of any poem and what Lowell intended may have been only sheer gratitude and to honor his friendship with Crane. What do you take from Lowell’s poem; Words For Hart Crane?
Words For Hart Crane
By Robert Lowell
When the Pulitzers showered on some dope
or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap,
few people would consider why I took
to stalking sailors, and scattered Uncle Sam’s
phoney gold-plated laurels to birds.
Because I knew my Whitman like a book,
stranger in America, tell my country; I,
Catullus redivivus, once the rage
of the Village and Paris, used to play my role
of homosexual, wolfing the stray lambs
who hungered by the Place de la Concorde.
My profit was a pocket with a hole.
Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age,
must lay his heart out for my bed and board.