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,

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;

And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive

No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps

Monody shall not wake the mariner.

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Patiently in his letter Crane proposes that bones, eroded to dice by the sea, might be washed up in fragments as an embassy -- mute representations of those nameless dead. He discusses the spiral calyx or cornucopia of the whirlpool left by a sinking ship, where parts of the wreckage appear as a sad bounty or hieroglyph. His careful sentences are studded with half-despairing asides reasserting that there are plenty of other overtones, undertones and implications that he is leaving out.

It is both sad and funny that the poem's subject is the way that important meanings -- such as those in the art of Herman Melville -- often come in remnants, shadows, extraordinary depths of intuition. The implicit examples are Moby-Dick and poems such as Melville's "The Maldive Shark." Crane's poem is lucid in its overall sweep, and that lucidity of the whole depends upon dramatic mystery of texture and detail. In Crane's somberly ornamented tribute to his predecessor, Melville, human instruments of perception are effective but doomed by their limitations. The lifted eyes of religion, the sextant of navigation, Melville's genius: All are ways toward knowledge that contrive or discover meanings, despite their mortal limitations. In a word, they are tragic.

Crane writes to his editor, "You ask me how a portent can possibly be wound in a shell . Without attempting to answer this for the moment, I ask you how Blake could possibly say that 'a sigh is a sword of an Angel King.' You ask me how compass , quadrant and sextant 'contrive' tides. I ask you how Eliot can possibly believe that 'Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum!' "

Anyone who has ever tried to explain a joke, or a piece of music, or a passion, can sympathize with Crane's exasperated effort to illuminate the essential shadows. Most things people say have denotative as well as connotative meanings. Just as poems often involve quite strict, straightforward logic, even a purchase order may use one term rather than another just because it feels right.

(Hart Crane's poem "At Melville's Tomb" and his letter to Harriet Monroe can be found in "Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters." Library of America. Copyright 2006 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.)

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