Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Can a street lamp beat like a fatalistic drum? Can a sigh be a sword of an Angel King? Can dice bequeath an embassy? Yes and no: Language often has a figurative, connotative logic, different from the more literal, denotative logic of a purchase order.

The examples of street lamp and sigh are used by the poet Hart Crane in a 1926 letter to Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry magazine, who had questioned some of his phrases as illogical or impossible, lacking in meaning. In defending his gorgeous, somewhat opaque poem "At Melville's Tomb," the poet is carefully explanatory. However, he also argues for the idea that not everything needs to be explained or explicable. The forthcoming Library of America edition of Crane's work contains both the letter and the poem, which is a modernist classic.

At Melville's Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge

The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath

An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,

Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,

The calyx of death's bounty giving back

A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,

The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,

Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,

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