Hart Crane, the son of a successful drug store owner, was born in Garretsville, Ohio on 21st July 1899. His parents divorced in April 1917 and soon afterwards he left high school and moved to New York City. Over the next few years he did a variety of jobs including a shipyard worker and as an advertising copywriter.
Crane told Walker Evans that he became a homosexual after being seduced by an older man in 1919 in Akron, Ohio, where he was employed as a clerk in one of his father’s candy stores. However, because of his Christian Scientist upbringing, he never came to terms with his sexuality.
Crane went to live in Greenwich Village where he became close friends with Malcolm Cowley and his wife Peggy Baird. Cowley encouraged Hart to write but he later admitted that he had a serious drink problem: "Hart drank to write: he drank to invoke the visions that his poems are intended to convey."
On 17th October, 1921, wrote to William Wright explaining what he was trying to achieve as a poet: "I can only apologize by saying that if my work seems needlessly sophisticated it is because I am only interested in adding what seems to me something really new to what has been written. Unless one has some new, intensely personal viewpoint to record, say on the eternal feelings of love, and the suitable personal idiom to employ in the act, I say, why write about it?.... I admit to a slight leaning toward the esoteric, and am perhaps not to be taken seriously. I am fond of things of great fragility, and also and especially of the kind of poetry John Donne represents, a dark musky, brooding, speculative vintage, at once sensual and spiritual, and singing rather the beauty of experience than innocence"
Eugene O'Neill was one of his earliest supporters. Crane wrote to his mother on 3rd February, 1924: "O'Neill ... recently told a mutual friend of ours that he thinks me the most important writer of all in the group of younger men with whom I am generally classed".
In 1924 Crane began an affair with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant mariner. According to one biographer: "With him, an emotional relationship developed in which Crane was intensely engaged. Crane never found a single partner with whom to share his life, and after Opffer, he may have felt such a partner could never be found. His affairs were temporary, mostly anonymous, and sometimes violent." His relationship with Opffer inspired a series of poems that became known as Voyages. These poems were included in his first collection, White Buildings (1926).
Crane's poetry was not popular but he had some important supporters. E. E. Cummings said that "Crane’s mind was no bigger than a pin, but it didn’t matter; he was a born poet." Another reviewer argued that "Crane masterfully uses variations in rhythm and syntax to establish a powerful, nearly invisible foundation that provides a dynamic forward movement to a poetic line that is bristling with significance, its diction drawn from virtually dozens of conflicting and overlapping registers."
Crane was a great admirer of the work of T.S. Eliot but disliked his pessimism. He also thought The Waste Land was too critical of the modern world and attempted to write poems that provided a balanced view of contemporary developments. His friend, Malcolm Cowley, later revealed that Crane could only write under the influence of alcohol. "But the recipe could be followed for a few years at the most, and it was completely effective only for two periods of about a month each, in 1926 and 1927, when working at top speed he finished most of the poems included in The Bridge. After that more and more alcohol was needed, so much of it that when the visions came he was incapable of putting them on paper."
A second volume of poems, The Bridge, appeared in 1930 to mixed reviews. Cudworth Flint wrote: "This poem seems to me indubitably the work of a man of genius, and it contains passages of compact imagination and compelling rhythms. But its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails." However, Yvor Winter argued: "These poems illustrate the dangers inherent in Mr. Crane’s almost blind faith in his moment-to-moment inspiration, the danger that the author may turn himself into a kind of stylistic automaton, the danger that he may develop a sentimental leniency toward his vices and become wholly their victim, instead of understanding them and eliminating them."
The publication of The Bridge meant that Crane was recognized as an important poet and Eda Lou Walton announced he was being included in her New York University course in contemporary poetry. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931. During this period he began an affair with Peggy Baird. It was his only heterosexual relationship and it was probably instigated by Peggy, who had a reputation for being very promiscuous. She told her friend, Dorothy Day that sex was "a barrier that kept men and women from fully understanding each other, and thus a barrier to be broken down". In 1931 Peggy left her husband, Malcolm Cowley, and went to live with Crane in Mexico.
In 1932 he decided to return to New York City the ship Orizaba. On 27th April Crane's sexual advances to a male crew member were rejected. He had been drinking heavily when several passengers heard him call out "goodbye, everybody" before jumping overboard.
Hart drank to write: he drank to invoke the visions that his poems are intended to convey. But the recipe could be followed for a few years at the most, and it was completely effective only for two periods of about a month each, in 1926 and 1927, when working at top speed he finished most of the poems included in The Bridge. After that more and more alcohol was needed, so much of it that when the visions came he was incapable of putting them on paper.
Imagine my surprise when Emil Opffer brought me to this street where, at the very end of it, I saw a scene that was more familiar than a hundred factual previsions could have rendered it! And there is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window of the room I am to have as soon as Emil’s father moves out, which is to be soon. Emil will be back then from South America where he had to ship for wages as a ship’s writer. That window is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, and the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning, or evening - rain, snow, or sun, it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it. I think the sea has thrown itself upon me and been answered, at least in part, and I believe I am a little changed - not essentially, but changed and transubstantiated as anyone is who has asked a question and been answered.
The bridge as a symbol today has no significance beyond an economical approach to shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks. And inasmuch as the bridge is a symbol of all such poetry as I am interested in writing it is my present fancy that a year from now I'll be more contented working in an office than ever before. Rimbaud was the last great poet that our civilization will see – he let off all the great cannon crackers in Valhalla's parapets, the sun has set theatrically several times since while Jules Laforgue, Eliot and others of that kidney have whimpered fastidiously. Everybody writes poetry now – and "poets" for the first time are about to receive official social and economic recognition in America. It's really all the fashion, but a dead bore to anticipate. If only America were half as worthy today to be spoken of as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago there might be something for one to say – not that Whitman received or required any tangible proof of his intimations, but that time has shown how increasingly lonely and ineffectual his confidence stands.
It is necessary, before attempting to criticize Mr. Crane’s new book (The Bridge), to place it in the proper genre and to give as accurate an account as one is able of its theme. The book cannot be called an epic, in spite of its endeavor to create and embody a national myth, because it has no narrative framework and so lacks the formal unity of an epic. It is not didactic, because there is no logical exposition of ideas; neither Homer nor Dante will supply a standard of comparison. The structure we shall find is lyrical; but the poem is not a single lyric, it is rather a collection of lyrics on themes more or less related and loosely following out of each other. The model, in so far as there is one, is obviously Whitman, whom the author proclaims in this book as his master....
These poems illustrate the dangers inherent in Mr. Crane’s almost blind faith in his moment-to-moment inspiration, the danger that the author may turn himself into a kind of stylistic automaton, the danger that he may develop a sentimental leniency toward his vices and become wholly their victim, instead of understanding them and eliminating them....
It is possible that Mr. Crane may recover himself. In any event, he has given us, in his first book, several lyrics that one is tempted to call great, and in both books several charming minor lyrics and many magnificent fragments. And one thing he has demonstrated, the impossibility of getting anywhere with the Whitmanian inspiration. No writer of comparable ability has struggled with it before, and, with Mr. Crane’s wreckage in view, it seems highly unlikely that any writer of comparable genius will struggle with it again.
This poem seems to me indubitably the work of a man of genius, and it contains passages of compact imagination and compelling rhythms. But its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails. And for a quite simple reason. The radical metaphor and the psychological method, which is really a string of such metaphors, by their particularity are adapted to the representation of unique objects or shades of feeling, and may as Mr. Winters suggests even on occasion be a source of single ideas. But any general theory – of America, life. God, or anything else – whgich is intended as a basis for thought and feeling in many different minds, must evidently be generalized so as to make it capable of adequate transplanting. Now, generalization necessitates formalization; form in ideas implies system; and a system requires a logical, rather than a merely associative, method of presentation, for system is logic. A system may be faulty, but it is then faulty logic; its faults, as well as its virtues, exist on the plane of logic. Particular metaphors and psychological sequences, expressing as they do identities peculiar to the individual, are ill adapted to furnish us with anything that can be seen as a system; they usually result at best in a vagrant route, and at worst in a jungle. In a poem such as The Bridge, therefore, however appropriate to certain passages the psychological method may be, either as furnishing metaphors for presenting details, or as a way of arriving at particular insights, when applied to the representation of Mr. Crane's central body of ideas (or intuitions, or feelings; at any rate, they are intended to form a body, or organic system) the method breaks down. We feel behind the poem a definite intellectual structure trying to break through the imagery, but strangled in the attempt. Or better, the poem is a super-saturated solution, with ideas trembling on the verge of crystallization; but the needed shock does not come and the ideas remain fluidly elusive behind the symbolism.
There is in The Bridge, then, a series of concealed sexual puns which may serve to transfigure the world from the banality of logic into the brilliant liquid motion of verbal and sexual play; or alternatively may be no more than a perpetual rebellion from final assertion and resolution... Jesting wordplay was Crane’s specialty, and his friend Samuel Loveman was another who remembered Hart introducing this wordplay into daily life: "riding on the subway was just one holocaust of laughter because he saw double meanings in all the ads and usually obscene meanings. He claimed that most of them had some sexual or phallic undercurrent of meaning. I doubted that, although very frequently he was right or seemed to be right." Crane exploits these sexual double meanings in The Bridge, but is always striving to make them more than simply a form of confession. I noted how Emerson’s famous essay on "the Poet" talked of the need to apprehend analogies between past and present as such bridging would boost America’s cultural self-esteem by its recognition that "Methodism and Unitarianism … rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi"; and this same Emerson essay ,ay have been one of the inspirations behind Crane’s attempt to metamorphose his own private history into the public history of America: "Time and nature yield us many gift, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality."