For two months, while writing my symphonic impressions of Hart Crane’s epic poem of America, The Bridge, I was reading his biography and various critiques of his poem. By and large, it seems to me that he was badly misunderstood, even by the most generous of his critics. The consensus seemed to be that The Bridge failed to achieve the poet’s far-reaching ambitions. Many of the critics compared one poem to another and felt that he was mistaken to include poems which they considered to be weak.
The more I read the poem, the more convinced I became that he was right – and they wrong. The poem seemed to me to be like a great symphony, in which not every moment could be equally ecstatic in its language. For the great moments in a musical work to shine, there also have to be quieter, less profound moments, by comparison with which the stunning moments shine all the brighter. The music must ebb and flow – as does Crane’s poem as it moves from poem to poem.
His critics also seemed to struggle with the surface level incomprehensibility of his language. Certainly, Crane employs language in a way that most intentionally reaches beyond any usual logical framework, but seems more interested in the sound and rhythms of the words. He also is a time traveler. In the middle of a sentence, he can shift his view to incorporate events that in the real world may have taken place hundreds of years apart, but in his mental landscape are brought together by some internal thread of connection. As I read his words, rather than focus on trying to understand them in a normal way, I simply let the words flow past me, like music does, following their own logic, and then they seem to open, like mysterious flowers, evoking innumerable other associations.
Crane evidently was intensely responsive to music and the poem contains numerous musical references. Reading through the poems, they begin to sing. When writing the symphony, it was fascinating to research the various musical references, find the tunes on-line, and incorporate them, mostly but not always disguised, into the score. His survey of the American geographic, historical and cultural landscape is full of sound – folk songs, hymns, Broadway tunes, jazz. In the poems, there are hurdy-gurdies, nickelodeons, grind organs and burlesque theater bands. At least to my understanding, he was carefully writing words that rhythmically arose from these remembered musical references, as they evoke the sounds of America, in its many guises. The voice of America that he captured was multi-faceted, like ancient gods, ranging from the most mundane and crass to the visionary and creative.