As part of its new Project REVEAL (not an empty acronym: it stands for Read and View English and American Literature), the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin has digitized the papers of writers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among them is Hart Crane, born on this day in 1899, the man who gave us The Bridge and who, according to Malcolm Cowley, enjoyed hurling furniture out the window when he was soused.
He and I have that in common. But our approach to writer’s block, suggests a lost poem from the Ransom Center collection, is entirely different. When Hart Crane gets writer’s block, he invokes the muses with a torrent of absurd, white-hot prose poetry that wouldn’t be out of place on the bathroom wall of a Haight-Ashbury flophouse circa 1967.
“Supplication to the Muses on a Trying Day” was never published. It exists only as an undated, signed typescript, and it seems to belong more to the hand of a Richard Brautigan than a Hart Crane. But even if his images are surreal, Crane’s almost unconscionable gifts as a stylist are here, and his sense of desperation. Harold Bloom once said that he sees in Crane’s poetry an “apotropaic gesture”—“he writes each lyric in such a way that you literally feel he’s going to die if he can’t bring it off, that his survival not just as a poet but as a person depends upon somehow articulating that poem.” That gesture is very much intact in “Supplication.” Crane begins by quoting his famous lines from The Bridge and promptly goes off the rails—more than informal, he’s unhinged, and it’s fun to behold. You won’t find him writing about dermatologists anywhere else. This is also, to my knowledge, the only poem anywhere that contains a line about a flirtatious scrotum-nibbling fish. Prove me wrong.
Hold it in a high wind. The fender curving over the brea[s]tplate, and all in high gear. I watched to see the river rise. The forests had all given out their streams and tributaries. When would the bones of De Soto come down in the wild rinse? And when would Ponce de Leon remember Hammerfest.?…. There were periods when the salt-rising bread broke out all over me in heinous sores. If you can’t abuse a machine, why have it! ‘ Machines are made for abuse. …Fool-proof! Human beings were never jetted, conceived, articulated, ejected, nursed, spanked, corrected, educated, harang[u]ed, married, divorced, petted, emasculated, loved and damned, jailed and liberated, besides being plastered, frightened and mangled, pickled and strangled –THEY were never meant to be abused!
Thou art no more than Chinese to me, O Moon! A simian chorus to you, and let your balls be nibbled by the flirtatious hauchinango. The tide would rise –and did. I held the crupper by a lasso conscripted from white mice tails spliced to the fore-top gallant. Old Mizzentop rose, but all in vain. It was a wild night among the breakers and the smooth rac[c]oons. All the pistols came dressed in white lattice, winking as never before; but the prawns held out til nearly daybreak ,-simpering, simpering and equivocating. By the time I reached Berlin – or was it Shanghai? – there were no more stitches for wounds, nor tortoises for telescopes. “What a waste of eternity!” I exclaimed into the ear of the most celebrated microphone you ever smashed. Then the wind rose, and I strangled in the embraces of a derelict aigrette.
These dermatologists of Mozambique have got hold of me since. They say my digits fidget, that I’m but a follicle of my former frat[ri]cide … what shall I do? I masticate firmly and bite off all my nails. I practice intervention/ to the brink of intelligibility. I insult all my friends and ride ostriches furiously across the Yukon, while parrots berate me to the accompaniment of the most chaste reticules. By all the mystery of Gomorr[ah], I ask, what can a gaping gastronomist gather in such a gulch of simulation?!!
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.