A Crane Fly In September Poem Analysis Essays

I asked my friend, the artist and scholar Blake Bronson-Bartlett, to write us a little essay about Stephen Crane. Blake and I had been discussing Crane’s curious status and reception in the history of American literature. Crane makes possible Hemmingway and Stevens, Jeffers and even Hart Crane, but how many remember that it was the poet John Berryman’s book, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography, that, in Robert M. Dowling’s words, “single-handedly ensured Stephen Crane’s reputation as a major American author”? Crane’s poems, which on the whole seem over the top and decidedly “minor,” at their best remain potent imaginative reservoirs, pockets of singular and foreign seeing and feeling. Crane was an iconoclast and an original. He is, as Joshua Edwards once said to me, “sort of our Rimbaud.” Please welcome Blake Bronson-Bartlett writing on Stephen Crane. 

—RF

“‘For my further undoing,’ Stephen Crane: There is Nothing to Say.”

This post was inspired by a previous post on Best American Poetry, which quotes a high school sophomore who took an interest in a poem by Stephen Crane.[1] When I read the post, I had just finished teaching Crane’s prose and poetry to a class of college students who had never heard of him. So I was surprised and thrilled to discover that Crane’s poetry was being taught in high school and even capturing the attention of students.

Since then, I have become increasingly curious about what I consider to be the author’s “half-presence” in American literary history. His work is read, and perhaps always will be read—or at least The Red Badge of Courage will be. But, even then, the emphasis that is placed on Crane, within and without the classroom, whether in high school or in college, is lacking, I believe, when compared with the emphasis placed on American authors of equal or even lesser “impact.”

Crane’s poetry, in particular, has more to teach us about the grey area underlying the “classical” trajectory of American poetry from Whitman to the likes of Williams, Pound, Moore, etc. Although in recent decades cultural historians have proposed alternative narratives that complicate this trajectory, Crane’s poetry is relatively invisible and unheard. Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987) and Bill Brown’s The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (1996) are significant works of scholarship in their own right, but exile the poetry to focus exclusively on Crane’s prose. Meanwhile, the single book-length work devoted to Crane’s poetry remains Daniel Hoffman’s The Poetry of Stephen Crane (1956). Why this silence about the poetry? Maybe it has nothing to say to us.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore it, as it waits obstinately, to be drawn out. To elaborate, I think it would be appropriate to share with the readers of Best American Poetry the second poem of the “Intrigue” cycle, from the latter half of War is Kind (1899), Crane’s second collection of poems.

I.

Love forgive me if I wish you grief
For in your grief
You huddle to my breast
And for it
Would I pay the price of your grief. (1-5)[2]

What can be said about the first stanza of this untitled poem? Relatively little is said about Crane’s “lines” at all.[3] John Berryman tells us Crane did not call himself a poet, did not call his “lines” poems. “His reluctance was an inarticulate recognition of something strange in the pieces. They are not like literary compositions. They are like things just seen and said, said for use.” Crane also referred to his “lines” as “pills”: “‘Some of the pills,’ he said in New York when The Black Riders was under attack, ‘are pretty darned dumb, anyhow. But I meant what I said’” (273).[4] Thus far, our hero wields a double-edged weapon. Saying nothing, the “lines” are “dumb”; yet he “meant” what he “said.” The lyric “I” who utters the words “Love forgive me if I wish you grief” is equally vexed. Not since Poe had the private monologues of sentimental subjects caused so much wincing. But if we were to agree that the “Lyric I” arose around the end of the eighteenth century, then, like any well-formed bourgeois, he only gained as much as he risked. Unfortunately, poetry is supposed to have lost everything one hundred years later.

II.

You walk among men
And all men do not surrender
And thus I understand
That love reaches his hand
In mercy to me. (6-10)

Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse would not appear until eleven years after Crane’s death in 1900. Her “Columbian Ode,” however, was commissioned for and read at the dedication of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, in October 1892, seven years before the publication of The Black Riders. The reading of Monroe’s “Ode” at the ceremony, says Joan Shelley Rubin, was “an acknowledgment that poets deserved the homage of society” during a decade when American verse was said to be in a “slump” (35).[5] The reality was that no one purchased the poem in booklet form. Monroe supposedly resented the fact that her métier had become unprofitable since midcentury, when “The Fireside Poets” (Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, Whittier) commanded large sums for their verses. Soon, “high modernism” would resurrect poetry in America. But first poetry would have to die. “The Fireside Poets” were dead; Walt Whitman died in 1892; Robert Browning, dear to Americans, died in 1889; Tennyson, more than dear, died in 1892. Meanwhile, American publishers were reluctant to invest capital in new or innovative poetic texts as the Realist novel absorbed the market. This narrative is not altogether untrue, says Rubin, but it ignores the fact that mainstream firms still published anthologies and cheaply printed volumes of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, while small independent presses—such as Copeland and Day, the publishers of Crane’s The Black Riders—devoted themselves to new poetry and selected reprints (40-43). So, in fact, the production and sale of reprints, anthologies, and small press publications tell us that “Poetry was actually on the upswing” in the 1890s (40). Documenting the impact popular verse had on American citizens from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Rubin provides an alternative to the miracle of “high modernism.” She also portrays popular verse as the instrument that gave itself most liberally to national and religious ideologies between Whitman and “The Pound Era.”

III.

It has taken cultural historians a long time to grasp the full breadth and complexity of poetic production and consumption before the 1950’s. These previously unspoken, unrecorded, and untransmitted histories, examining the traces left by the citizen’s use of poetry, in a nation that leaped from the printed page, may give Crane’s poems the hearing they deserve.

He had your picture in his room
A scurvy traitor picture
And he smiled
—Merely a fat complacence
Of men who know fine women—
And thus I divided with him
A part of my love. (11-17)

Crane was a thorn in my sensitive adolescence. I was subjected to The Red Badge of Courage in the eighth grade. The film Glory had recently been released on home video. Shortly after finishing with the book, we watched the film in class. The screening was meant to have a general application: the L.A. Riots had just happened; the Civil War seemed pertinent, incidentally casting its shadow on the Gulf War. I cried like a baby after the attack on Fort Wagner. I cried when Denzel Washington and Mathew Broderick discovered union in death. I cried because I wanted to be them, both of them, at peace in the morning sun. In the film as in Crane’s novel, the Union victory goes unsaid. I cried again, feeling that sentimentalized death was insufficient closure for the trauma of war. When we discussed the novel in class, I was persecuted by the feeling that everyone was being touched by the same cruel mistress. Henry Fleming learned to reason, Crane informs us, by speaking with the dead. “The simple questions of the tattered man had been knife thrusts to him. They asserted a society that probes pitilessly at secrets until all is apparent. His late companion’s chance persistency made him feel that he could not keep his crime concealed in his bosom. It was sure to be brought plain by one of those arrows which cloud the air and are constantly pricking, discovering, proclaiming those things which are willed to be forever hidden. He admitted that he could not defend himself against this agency. It was not within the power of vigilance” (Crane, 141). This passage was written and published when the nineteenth century acquired the means to begin auditing its subjects in new ways. Fresh recording, formatting, and disseminating practices were being established. 

IV.

Fool, not to know that thy little shoe
Can make men weep!
—Some men weep.
I weep and I gnash
And I love the little shoe
The little, little shoe. (18-23)

Readers, critics, whoever, may still be learning to read, to learn what reading “is” from what it “has been.” In his insightful and compelling essay, Max Cavitch[6] argues that Crane’s poetry combines the traditional (through the use of “refrain” and repetition) and the untraditional (through the use of “free verse,” which was noted by contemporary critics of The Black Riders and was still a novelty in the 1890s), to issue “a kind of immanent critique of free verse as a manifestation of identity and personal freedom” (38). The economy of subjectivity and depersonalization that Cavitch reads in the form of Crane’s poetry bears the trademark of a critical strategy that must be in place to enable the infinite discontinuity of the textual object. Yet, external neither to economy nor to the aporias of (self-)knowledge, poetry cannot sing in harmony with history and/or critical analysis. It demands investigation of the deep structures of the technology of writing and the elaboration of practices, communal and solitary, that are categorized as “literary” but had always taken account of what is happening. Crane’s lines pose the question of use with such force, and with a direction so antithetical to the preconditions making poetry a literary art, an institutional practice, and a form of speech, that they can only confound the reader with repetitive presentations—dense and dumb—of the awkwardness with which one discovers how to deal with objects by investing photographs, little shoes, and flowers with meaning. 

V.

These objects are not what they seem; they are surfaces of inscription. Berryman was right to say that Crane’s lines disturb readers by making them feel that they are being made into fools (279). But this feeling is not the result of Crane’s mastery of irony—not the production of the split, upon which we are structured. Rather, when reading Crane’s poems, the question of use, always resulting in fetishism and instrumentalization, reminds readers that they have always been “unlettered.”

God give me medals
God give me loud honors
That I may strut before you, sweetheart
And be worthy of—
—The love I bear you. (24-28)

The blank between being “worthy” for you and the “The love I bear you” is not nothing. It is constituted by value on one side and surplus sentiment—hoarded and ready to pay the “price” for your pains—on the other. The swelling blank announces that the would-be penetrated subject lies elsewhere. Not absent, but elsewhere. Never there in the lines, but dispersed on either side of them. In the “figure of speech,” the lines become so dumb that reading is reduced to a question of where the blank came from and what its purpose is. John D. Barry of the Literary World, in his 24 June 1899 review of War is Kind, addresses the problem. “The present volume has a certain dramatic quality, as well as observation, and some of the thoughts are strikingly original and vivid; but, on the whole, it is the most gratuitously injudicious literary performance that has come under my eye in many a year. Some of the lines are utterly unintelligible, “words without ideas;” others are simply passing observations, suggestive, but too crude to be taken bodily out of a note-book. In other words, the book contains the material for poetry, rather than poetry itself” (Monteiro, 201).[7]

VI.

To his friends’ dismay, Crane invited prostitutes to dinner and liked to hang out in dangerous neighborhoods. There, he listened. No risk was too great to prevent him from opening his great ear.

Now let me crunch you
With full weight of affrighted love.
I doubted you
—I doubted you—
And in this short doubting
My love grew like a genie
For my further undoing. (29-35)

Berryman’s biography of Stephen Crane is a “critical biography.” This genre of scholarly biography, distinguishing itself from the common rabble of narrated trivia stuck between hard covers, illumines aesthetics now and again with the life of the author while, in the best cases, allowing text to reciprocate and offer a morsel of fact where one might be missing in the subject’s correspondence and diaries. Berryman has the decency to separate his interpretations from his narrative of Crane’s life, at the end of his book. But it is this decent organization that suggests the double nature of all “critical biography,” its weaving of interpretation with historical accounting, the one naturalizing the other. The “critical biography” has a tendency to map authors’ intentions. Could it be that Berryman’s biography of Crane maps the intentions of critical biographers?

VII.

Cavitch suggests that Crane’s “refrain,” his use of repetition, causes modern, free verse poetry to face the conventions it attempts to repress. The mechanisms of repression, image-saturated machines, which operate upon the jealous lover, are brought to a standstill in this stand-off. The voice has been “dumb” all along, spelling out the information that the lyric subject thought was pronounced by him alone. This may be why Berryman hands Crane and his verse over to Freudian analysis.

Beware of my friends
Be not in speech too civil
For in all courtesy
My weak heart sees spectres,
Mists of desires
Arising from the lips of my chosen
Be not civil. (36-42)

Freud’s early paper, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” (1910), posits four conditions afflicting the bourgeois male neurotic’s attempts at love. 1) The female object has to have a lover already, such as a husband, who will be wounded by her affair with the subject; 2) she must be known publically as a woman of questionable morals (Cora Crane was a “hostess” at a brothel, and married, when she first began her affair  with Stephen Crane in 1896); and, once these requirements have been met, 3) the subject compulsively repeats the first two conditions as 4) the subject seeks out love objects who need to be rescued by him. Berryman concludes: “The paper reads indeed, upon sufficient exploration, like a study of Crane, and its immense insight receives from Crane’s life and work decisive confirmation.” (301). What Berryman’s use of Freud tells us about Crane is: when the social use of American verse fragmented after 1900, poetry would begin a long-term stand-off-as-collaboration with anthropology.

VIII.

The “scurvy traitor picture” and the “little, little shoe” were mere distractions alongside which could be imagined psychic peace treaties with fellow men who “do not surrender” to temptation. These delusions have long-term side effects. To manhandle objects is to mismanage relationships in Crane’s lines. Such bungling amounts to an abuse of power somehow—somehow, something very important is at stake—and justice is served as the “speaker” undoes speech by speaking. In one sense, there is nothing left to say once verse is undone. The neo-romantic wallows in typography and scribbles ecstatically at the archive. The resurrection of poetry through high modernism in the early twentieth century is not a myth, but a “mythified” divergence (into poetry’s “worth” and the “love” it holds in store for you) that lays claim to the deep structures of textuality and the phenomenon of the word. Crane’s lines have the same character, but they do not lay claim, and their materiality is so conspicuous as to be dense. 


The flower I gave thee once
Was incident to a stride
A detail of a gesture
But search those pale petals
And see engraven thereon
A record of my intention. (43-48)

Structured by Whitman on one side and Modernism on the other, the lines are loved by no one, because they have grown dull with anticipation for the jealous man to fall into a dazzling new silence. 

 

IX.

Love forgive me if I wish you grief
For in your grief
You huddle to my breast
And for it
Would I pay the price of your grief.

You walk among men
And all men do not surrender
And thus I understand
That love reaches his hand
In mercy to me.

He had your picture in his room
A scurvy traitor picture
And he smiled
—Merely a fat complacence
Of men who know fine women—
And thus I divided with him
A part of my love.

Fool, not to know that thy little shoe
Can make men weep!
—Some men weep.
I weep and I gnash
And I love the little shoe
The little, little shoe.

God give me medals
God give me loud honors
That I may strut before you, sweetheart
And be worthy of—
—The love I bear you.

Now let me crunch you
With full weight of affrighted love.
I doubted you
—I doubted you—
And in this short doubting
My love grew like a genie
For my further undoing.

Beware of my friends
Be not in speech too civil
For in all courtesy
My weak heart sees spectres,
Mists of desires
Arising from the lips of my chosen
Be not civil.

The flower I gave thee once
Was incident to a stride
A detail of a gesture
But search those pale petals
And see engraven thereon
A record of my intention.

 

Blake Bronson-Bartlett is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa. He is the former editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Believer and Sceneca Review, and he is the recipient of a Mellon foundation grant for the study of narrative theory. He is the editor of a collection of essays on Whitman's prose and of interviews with the late wife of performance artist Genesis P-Orridge. His dissertation focuses on Whitman's notebooks. 

    Notes

[1] http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2012/04/stephen-crane-american-poet-by-jenny-factor.html

[2] Numbers in parentheses refer to lines of each stanza in the second poem of the “Intrigue” cycle, published as the second half of the collection titled War is Kind. The poem appears on pages 1340-1342 of the edition used for this essay. Stephen Crane, Prose and Poetry (New York: The Library of America, 1996).

[3] As of 2 July 2012, the “Crane Bibliography” on the webpage of The Stephen Crane Society (http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/crane/cranebib.htm) lists thirty-one books and articles, more than half of which have The Red Badge of Courage in the title, for 2010. A total of four entries are given for 2011. No doubt, some research would reveal that the “Crane Bibliography” for 2011 is incomplete. Nonetheless, it is worth comparing the Society’s “Crane Bibliography” with The Walt Whitman Archive’s “Bibliography” (http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/bibliography/index.html) for 2010 (131 citations) and 2011 (101 citations).

[4] Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. New York: Cooper Square Press, (2001). 

[5] Rubin, Shelley Joan. Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America. Cambridge: The Belknap Press (2007).

[6] Cavitch, Max. “Stephen Crane’s Refrain.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 54.1-4 (2008): 33-54. Henceforth, Cavitch.

[7]Stephen Crane: The Contemporary Reviews. George Monteiro, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009).

Poetry by Ted Hughes

Season Songs (London: Faber and Faber, 1975)

Nicholas Bland considers Hughes's seasonal poetic journal

Initially, Ted Hughes aimed Season Songs at children. But according to Hughes, the poems ‘grew up’, as he wrote them [1]. The syntax in Season Songs doesn’t exclude children from enjoying and understanding much of the verse. But some of the collection’s major themes transcend childhood experience. The poems are ordered according to season. Speaking broadly, Spring is characterized by awkward regeneration, Summer by Spring’s rich and heavy issue, Autumn by decay, and Winter by silence and winnowed existence. As Hughes intended, these qualities are all pitched ‘within hearing of children’. But at moments the writing is almost exclusively adult. In ‘Spring Nature Notes’ the air ‘struggling in soft excitements / Like a woman hurrying into her silks’ is not necessarily sexual, yet the simile requires a faculty of adult association. Also, Hughes’s cultural allusions and references shouldn’t alienate a younger audience, but children are unlikely to comprehend terms like ‘Goidelic’ or ‘chitin’. Hughes illustrates the seasons in a way that allegorizes anthropomorphic life. In touching on subjects such as the inevitable progress towards death, or a newborn calf’s ‘hopeful religion’ [2], the book emerges from boundaries that Hughes’s original creative purpose set for it.

Even so, the legacy of Hughes’s desire that the collection should appeal to children remains evident. ‘The River in March’ is painted in language often primitive and fairy-tale. The river ‘is her Mighty Majesty the sea / Travelling among the villages incognito.’ This technique of humanizing natural features occurs throughout the poem.  They assume a totemic character: the eponymous river becomes ‘A deep choir’ and ‘The brassy sun gives / her a headache’. Here the sun is an oppressor. The dynamic of oppressed/oppressor, hero/villain fits the poem within the mould of children’s literature. As does a binary refrain at the start of each stanza, which rotates between, ‘Now the river is rich’ and ‘Now the river is poor’. This binary refrain gives the poem a gentle but clear rhythm. It emphasizes the collection’s identification as song.

The penultimate poem in the Summer sequence is ‘The Harvest Moon’. The symbol of the harvest moon marks the transition from summer to autumn. The poem has a clearer form than its predecessors in the collection. It is divided into five near even-sized stanzas (5-3-4-4-3). The ‘flame-red moon’ extinguishes one season and ignites the next. It orchestrates the scene as it develops. The harvest moon is figured as a goddess, whose arrival brings ‘A kneeling vigil’ from the elms and oaks. Music is pictured by the speaker and performed by the elements: 

The harvest moon has come, 

Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon,

And earth replies all night, like a deep drum.

This is a natural symphony of elements. The poem’s simple rhyme scheme heightens the harmonious confluence and interdependence of nature’s constituents.

Elsewhere the verse is more challenging for the reader. The first poem of the Autumn sequence, ‘Leaves’, has a clearly-defined structure. Each four-line stanza opens with a question about the shed leaves. The two middle lines of each stanza rhyme, whilst the final words of the first and last lines within each stanza are the same. This makes the funeral process ceremonial and liturgical. Religious reference is explicit. As we move from questions about how the leaves died, to how their death should be recognized, the figures of nature assume formal religious roles. The swallow volunteers to make a shroud, the river will act as gravedigger, the wind as chief-mourner, and so on. The Crow opts to serve as parson: ‘it is well known / I study the bible right down to the bone.’ Here, the Crow hints at sacrilege. The Bible is fodder. The mourners arranged in ‘Leaves’ are primal gods. The fallen leaves symbolize the passage of season; the rites mark a moving onwards.

The link between seasonal and human qualities is achieved in several ways. Hughes’s technique when describing nature is to personify it vividly and comprehensively. He embodies it in human characters. ‘March Morning Unlike Others’ could serve as a summary of the qualities found in the entire Spring sequence. The poem is typical of the energetic shifts of focus that are found throughout Hughes’s work. It begins with a panorama of spring images: brief lines manipulated by the speaker’s perception:

Blue haze. Bees hanging in air at the hive-mouth.

Crawling in prone stupor of sun

On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards,

Still-wings, each

However, the backdrop to this animation is an ‘invalid, dropsied, bruised’ earth. Spring life has come round again, before the earth has recovered from the barrenness of winter. Like a hospital patient, ‘She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun’. Feminizing earth is not a mere trope here. The proximity between woman and earth is more forceful than the concept of Mother Earth. Hughes figures the earth in womanly form, shocked by life that surrounds her, yet at the same time revived and energized by it.

All the moments recorded in the collection are like the March morning, recurrent but unlike the everyday. They are depictions of the extraordinary. From these moments, we learn the mechanics of life. The collection does not describe all things traditionally bright and beautiful, but Hughes’s attentiveness finds subject matter in the seemingly desperate.

‘A Cranefly in September’ depicts a cranefly that has lived beyond its natural life and now blunders ‘From collision to collision.’ The speaker touches upon the cranefly’s near-death in a way that is both tragic and comic: ‘Sometimes she rests in the grass forest / Like a fairytale hero’. He figures himself as a giant. The scale projected brings the speaker nearer to his subject. They share a world outside of human existence. However, as is true for Season Songs in its entirety, the overriding life force is time and season. Time spares no thing - but time’s vitality is the source of beauty for the entire collection.

Nicholas Bland is a Senior Research Executive at GfK. He studied at  Trinity College, Dublin where his other subjects of research were Evelyn Waugh and twentieth century North American literature. 

Notes

1. Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 2003. All references to Hughes’s poetry are from this edition.

2. Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 127. 

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