Hart Crane by Rob Nowill
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
Rob Nowill is a London-based journalist. After a few lost years in public relations, he now contributes to titles like the Guardian, AnOther Man and Vice. He covers fashion, but also writes about real stuff.
I discovered Hart Crane because of an arrow. Specifically, an arrow painted in the bottom-right of Periscope, a Jasper Johns painting that I’d seen at an exhibition, aged nineteen. A perfunctory note explained that the arrow was a tribute to Crane, a modernist poet who’d ended his life by throwing himself from the deck of a steamer ship.
I’m a sucker for a weepy backstory, and queer history is packed with them. So the story of a gay poet, dying tragically at sea, sounded irresistible. I rushed to buy a volume of his work, hoping I’d have a new name to drop into conversation as a pretentious undergraduate.
Good god. It was like chewing sawdust. Crane’s poetry is halting, contorted, and infuriating to read. Sentences abruptly stop; ideas peter out before they are fully expressed. And the language is so dense as to be almost illegible. There’s none of the sensuality and lyricism of Lorca, or O’Hara, or Whitman. There’s not even any sex. It’s about as erotic as cutting your toenails. So the book was left abandoned and unloved. Before long I’d forgotten that I’d ever read him. I grew into my twenties. I moved to London, and fell for men, and felt rejection, and began to understand myself as a gay man.
Some years later, I came across Hart Crane’s name again. This time, it was in a biography of Tennessee Williams. Crane was, I read, one of the most profound influences on Williams’ sweaty, sexy, thrummingly libidinal theatre. Not long after that, I was reading a literary journal that mentioned Crane’s most famous poem, White Buildings. It was described as ‘the greatest modern homosexual love poem in all of American literature.’ And I’d dismissed him as a frigid, sexless bore.
Revisiting his work as an adult, I’ve come to realise that I wasn’t entirely wrong. Hart Crane’s story isn’t romantic. His suicide was prompted by a homophobic beating by his fellow passengers. He was a drunk and a depressive, with a notoriously violent temper and a crippling insecurity about his work. His poetry is bruised, and tortured, and scared. It’s about love, yes, but the kind of love that breeds longing, and grief, and isolation. Before he’d even turned 25, he told friends that his romantic life was nothing but a ‘multitude of humiliations’.
And that’s what his work is about. It’s not the kind of poetry to read to your lover, or have tattooed onto your wrist, or post onto Instagram. It demands to be read by desklight, not candlelight. The sexuality he writes about is the product of a profoundly sensitive mind. And yet it has the power to hit you like a punch to the gut. There are lines in Voyages, my favourite of his poems, that still put a lump in my throat. I won’t quote them, because they don’t work in isolation. None of his writing does.
I hate most contemporary gay films. I find them to be stupid, facile, and disingenuous. Not to mention formulaic: two conventionally beautiful men, each looking as though they’ve stepped out of the pages of a Fantastic Man editorial, happening to meet one other in the Yorkshire countryside or the Wild West or a Nottingham council estate. It bores me because it doesn’t ring true. The gay experience isn’t about crossing eyes with the muscled farmer on the next field over. It’s about unrequited desire, and dissatisfaction, and constraint. I think that’s what Hart Crane understood. His work is about how squeezed and small our romantic lives are forced to become: how our moments of intimacy are compressed into private spaces where we won’t be stared at, or laughed at, or worse. There’s a moment in one of Crane’s poems where he writes about looking into his lover’s eyes, while knowing that he cannot take his hand, for his own safety. His feelings are set to the sound of ‘gently pitying laughter.’
Crane wrote about the sea frequently. The great love of his life, a sailor named Emil Opffer, would leave him for months at a time, and Crane wrote frequently about the agony of separation. His most straightforward love poem, The Harbor Dawn, is about a snatched moment of tenderness between the two men, before Oppfer leaves him again. For Crane, the sea came to represent his abandonment, and his profound loneliness. But it also signified freedom: a contrast from the cautious, watchful approach he was forced to take with his lover. That’s a truer gay experience than most of what I read in books, or see in movies. We have to be careful, always. And Crane was careful in everything he did. Even in letters to his friends and lovers, he coded his sexuality. I think it’s why his work is so inaccessible at first. His feelings are buried beneath his intellect.
There’s a neat irony, given the drift of its politics, that the foundations of American literature were put in place by men who loved other men. It’s impossible to conceive of what American culture would look like without Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or Leaves of Grass or The Weary Blues. I think Hart Crane deserves a spot in that pantheon. I didn’t get his work when I first read it. I still don’t feel that I fully do. But I’ll go back to it, again and again, understanding a little more each time. In a couple of years, I’ll be the same age that Hart Crane was when he died. I’ll pick up his work, that day, and try to find something new in it all over again.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.