Friday, February 5, 2016

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

My Grandmother’s Love Letters
By Hart Crane (1889 - 1932)

 There are no stars tonight 
 But those of memory. 
 Yet how much room for memory there is 
 In the loose girdle of soft rain. 

There is even room enough 
 For the letters of my mother’s mother, 
 That have been pressed so long 
 Into a corner of the roof 
 That they are brown and soft, 
 And liable to melt as snow. 

 Over the greatness of such space 
 Steps must be gentle. 
 It is all hung by an invisible white hair. 
 It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air. 

 And I ask myself: 

 “Are your fingers long enough to play 
 Old keys that are but echoes: 
 Is the silence strong enough 
 To carry back the music to its source 
 And back to you again 
 As though to her?”

 Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand 
 Through much of what she would not understand; 
 And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof 
 With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

First published in 1920. 

Taking this poem at face value, I find it gentle, nostalgic and lovely. My researches tell me that queer theorists see veiled references to Crane's homosexuality in the closing lines. (He lived at a time when it was not possible to be completely open about it.) This is just one of the poems in which they see such disguised references, and it would probably be surprising were it not so. 

I think this poem can be enjoyed with or without that interpretation. The mood is so well conveyed that we don't absolutely need to know what things Grandmother would not have understood. And if we think we do know, that can add extra poignancy.

The photo above shows him with Brooklyn Bridge in the background, the setting of a section of one of his best-known poems,The Bridge – in its entirety a very long poem which, The Poetry Foundation article on Crane says,

he intended, at least in part, as an uplifting alternative to T. S. Eliot's bleak masterwork, The Waste Land. With this long poem, which eventually comprised fifteen sections and sixty pages, Crane sought to provide a panorama of what he called "the American experience." Adopting the Brooklyn Bridge as the poem's sustaining symbol, Crane celebrates, in often hopelessly obscure imagery, various peoples and places—from explorer Christopher Columbus and the legendary Rip Van Winkle to the contemporary New England landscape and the East River tunnel. The bridge, in turn, serves as the structure uniting, and representing, all that is America. In addition, it functions as the embodiment of uniquely American optimism and serves as a source of inspiration and patriotic devotion: "O Sleepless as the river under thee, / Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod, / Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God." 

He was known almost as much for his poetic theorising, as expounded in letters to various poet friends. The obscurity he is sometimes charged with arises from his attempts at using 'logical metaphor' in his writing.

He was an alcoholic whose life was cut short by suicide at 32. But he hobnobbed with famous writers and artists, lived some time in France, and is regarded as one of the most influential American poets of his time, even though he left a relatively small body of work. Many consider him a great poet; others think him overrated. You can judge for yourself at PoemHunter, where he is cited by his full name, Harold Hart Crane.  

His letters are regarded as important reading too, and can be found among books by and about him at Amazonpdf of his poetry in the Classic Poetry Series is available for free download. 

The link on his name, above, is to the Wikipedia article. There is also a good summary of his life and work at Academy of American Poets.

Poems and photos posted to 'The Living Dead' for purposes of study and review remain the property of the copyright holders.


  1. I found this poem lovely, Rosemary, and resonated with how much of our modern society my grandma would be horrified by, having lived in a simpler time. It is sad he left so young. I can only mourn the poems he would have written. Thanks for your presentation here. You always show us an interesting poet and research your features so well. This is a highlight of my week, for not having gone to university, there is just so much I do not know.

    1. Thank you Sherry, for this lovely comment! I learn a lot myself in doing these features.

  2. Wow, an alcoholic and committing suicide at 32 years old! And still he has written such wonderful poetry & is considered an influential poet. I wonder what he would have written had he lived a long life!! I read the poem you shared & no way would I think of the last stanza to be a homosexual reference, but I guess if one knew a lot about his life and studied his work in depth there would be reason. I can KIND of see it. But it is a touching poem really whatever one thinks. He writes with a gentle touch. Thank you for this very interesting article, Rosemary.

  3. A wonderful poem, Rosemary. It's sad to me that so often great art comes from great pain and travail. Thank you for sharing with us.

  4. He had me at "the loose girdle of soft rain"! Gosh. So sensual despite feeling she was just out of reach ....

  5. a beautiful poem written by such a young poet, in his how he has created sophistication using simple sad his end was so tragic...Thank you Rosemary for bringing Hart Crane to us...

  6. this piece leaves me with a some semblence of the context in that period of time. the busy and complex bombardment of present life is such a distraction that unless we make an effort we may not hear...the girdle of soft rain or experience the silence where the music lies in the echoes.

    i don't understand the reference to 'homosexuality'. probably because i don't know anything about him.

    gracias for sharing, Rosemary

  7. I enjoyed Hart Crane's poem so much, I intend to read more of them. I found his letter about metaphoric logic, to be way over my head. This is testimony to the fact that I am an amateur at poetry, its many facets and rules. I probably would dismiss such a discourse as a defense of poetic license. Regardless of the background, the process, this writer had depth and beauty. Sad that he lived in a time when his sexuality was best a secret. Sad that he ended his life.
    Thank you Rosemary for bringing him to our attention.

  8. Thank you for your great introduction and a wonderful poem.. I find many hidden layers, but I would not have spotted homosexuality.

  9. This is a very interesting selection for me, Rosemary. I really don't know that much about Mr. Crane. I think I'm going to follow a couple of the links you've suggested.
    Steve K.


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