Back to school.
Timms Sir. I don’t always understand poetry.
Hector You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
Timms I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
Hector But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
Lockwood Fucking Ada.
Alan Bennett, The History Boys, Act 1
That was how it was with me and the poetry of Hart Crane. I found his name in an encyclopaedia we had at home. A disciple of T.S. Eliot, queer, dead at 32 having jumped off a boat, a tragic and thereby glamorous figure. One of my people, anyway, I could tell before having read a word of his poetry. I found his poems in the public library.
The Wine Menagerie
Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.
At eleven years old, I could recite this poem. I was in one of those moods that I and perhaps you get of hunger for something new, and wasn’t about to be put off by my not understanding a word of it. ‘Mustard scansions’, what a fabulous phrase, I thought then. If you google it, you find tens of critics disagreeing about what it means. They can’t even decide whose eyes the scansions belong to; I think the leopard. Is there a leopard, or is it a metaphor?
One of his less unstraightforward offerings:
A land of leaning ice
Hugged by plaster-grey arches of sky,
Flings itself silently
“Has no one come here to win you,
Or left you with the faintest blush
Upon your glittering breasts?
Have you no memories, O Darkly Bright?”
Cold-hushed, there is only the shifting moments
That journey toward no Spring—
No birth, no death, no time nor sun
I set the first verse of that to music in my teens, and tried to make the music spare and calculatedly artless, the chords blocky and slow-moving, bare fourths and fifths, no counterpoint, just monument. I’m not sure it worked.
I’m still waiting to understand Crane’s poetry, but sometimes phrases of his come into my head and I find myself thinking that it doesn’t really matter. It makes me seem like the laughably philistine headmaster of The History Boys who misrepresents Hector so grossly in his eulogy —
He loved language. He loved words. For each and every one of you, his pupils, he opened a deposit account in the bank of literature and made you all shareholders in that wonderful world of words.
— but until you understand the meaning, the words have to suffice, and there’s beauty in the look, the sound, the feel of Crane’s words, even if you don’t grasp what they’re getting at, yet.