Friday, April 27, 2012

National Poetry Month: A Letter from Hart Crane to His Father

The library has been participating in National Poetry Month this April with a special display of poems and poetry books at the Central Library. A selection of more than 200 short poems was printed, and library patrons were invited to take a poem home with them if they liked. So far, more 130 poems have been taken, and a number of poetry books that were included in the display have been checked out.
So what is the use of poetry anyway? The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism equated poetry with wit, and expressed an idea about poetry that remains much in currency:                                           

                      True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
                      What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
                      Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
                      That gives us back the Image of our Mind

This idea of poetry, that people write poems to express something universal in human experience with felicity and exactitude of articulation that has never before been achieved in anything anyone else has written about that experience to date, is nonsense. People write poems for the same reason people keep writing love songs. While some things about certain kinds of experience may be universal in an abstracted sense, life is experienced as individual and particular, and we tend to think that in important ways our story is uniquely our own. We want our story in the mix, we want to communicate that story to other people, and we want to be known for who we are. Another reason why “universal” themes are revisited in poems is that the medium for communicating that experience, language, also changes. This occurs in part through the seeming erosion that comes from use, through cultural isolation, and perhaps as well from some natural entropy. But language is also changed by design. Like every other resource that belongs to us in common, people want to make it proprietary in order to advance political and commercial interests, to make it pay. In an age of mass communication and more invasive technologies, the appropriation of language, its manipulation and devaluation, the redefinition of words and the revision of their nuances, and at times their intentional evisceration, is something that can be done ever more frequently and effectively. Poetry operates on the frontiers of language, in the territory of the things most difficult to say, and it defends, extends, and renews the language we share so that we can continue to communicate things of importance to each other in ways that are direct, uncorrupted, and free.

Clarence Crane (the father of the American poet, Hart Crane) was a great American entrepreneur. He founded a very successful candy company and was perplexed at his son’s apparently desultory life, his lack of interest in business or anything else that seemed to have practical reward. Hart Crane tried to explain his avocation in a letter he wrote to his father. He had just left a grinding copywriting job in New York City:

To His Father (January 12, 1924): "I went to the country because I had not had a vacation for several years, was rather worn with the strain of working at high speed as one does in such high-geared agencies, and above all because I wanted the precious time to do some real thinking and writing, the most important things to me in my life. You will perhaps be righteously a little bewildered at all these statements about my enthusiasm about my writing and my devotion to that career in life. If I am able to keep on in my present development, strenuous as it is, you may live to see the name 'Crane' stand for something where literature is talked about, not only in New York but in London and abroad. Try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,--something that maybe can't be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between man and man, a bond of understanding and human enlightenment--which is what a real work of art is. If you do that, then maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end.”

That some take on this quixotic and unremunerative ambition for us is what the celebration of poets and poetry in National Poetry Month is all about.

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