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Friday, 16 May 2008

Hart Crane in Britain: A Bridge Too Far?

Maurice Riordan has edited a Selected Poems of Hart Crane (pictured) for the British market, with a lovely, passionate Introduction that, unlike so much of the cold-handed, stiff-lipped sort of writing and mini-enthusiasm that gets doled out sparingly in the UK, for poets like Crane, is, actually, wonderfully enthusiastic, and humane. Riordan observes that Crane was in London, once, for a Christmas dinner with Graves and Riding at their houseboat, which is a treat to imagine - and that event in 1929 was "the high watermark" of his reception in British literary circles. In short, Crane has never been fully integrated into the British poetic sensibility. As Riordan points out, Leavis found him turgidly "rhetorical", and Douglas Dunn greeted his Complete Poems, as late as 1984, with a mighty harrumph ("his wilful wordage"). Instead, Riordan (editor of Poetry London), celebrates "Crane's extravagant poetry".

Extravagant is the right word: it implies the "least thrifty" expenditure of emotionality, rhetorical excess, verbal flourish, and syntactical exuberance that baroque modernists (often called neo-romantics) like Crane employed, and indeed, seem sometimes overwhelmed by. The Scottish critical tradition in the UK, in some senses determined by Adam Smith's lectures; and Wordsworth's puritanical desire for a language for all men, combined with Eliot's cautious avoidance of personality; and Leavis's and Orwell's qualms about the misuse of language - all the way down to the arguments for craft of today (Don Paterson has famously written off Dylan Thomas for his "florid operatics") establishes a zone of tolerance into which the work of extravagant poets like Crane may rarely sail.

And that is only the mainstream talking. There is even greater resistance to lyrical expression on the part of some British "late-modernists", for whom language, not the self, is the subject. This can sometimes maroon magnificent verbally excessive textuality such as Crane creates, on an isle of neglect. Hopefully, this new collection will woo more ecstatic lovers, than grim fighters. Language, can, does, and should, exceed rational limits.
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