Stephen Crane's Strange Singing

By Dirda, Michael | New Criterion, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Stephen Crane's Strange Singing


Dirda, Michael, New Criterion


One afternoon back in the 1970s, I was browsing through the sale table at the Cornell University bookstore when a shopworn paperback caught my eye: The Complete Poems of Stephen Crane. I remember saying to myself, "The author of The Red Badge of Courage wrote poetry?" I picked up the book, skimmed the first several pages, and paused at the third poem. Like the others, it bore no tide, simply a roman numeral, but it took my breath away:

    In the desert
   I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
   Who, squatting upon the ground,
   Held his heart in his hands,
   And ate of it.
   I said, "Is it good, friend?"
   "It is bitter--bitter," he answered;
   "But I like it
   "Because it is bitter,
   "And because it is my heart." 

After murmuring "Wow"--die correct critical response, by the way--I read the poem over until I'd memorized it. Eerie, paradoxical, without a bit of flab, it seemed to me then, as now, unfussily perfect. I wasn't quite sure of its meaning, but what did that matter? That pared-down verbal finesse and a kind of Grand Guignol visionary power were an irresistible combination.

Many of the writers featured in the American Poets Project are, like Samuel Menashe or Kenneth Fearing, relatively unknown to younger readers. (1) Nobody could say that about Stephen Crane (1871-1900). Every high-school student alive has read--or been forced to read--The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and nearly every college English major has, at one point or another, listened to a teacher analyze the first line of "The Open Boat" (1897): "None of them knew the color of the sky." Students of American literature quickly learn that Crane's first (self-published) book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) pioneered the type of naturalism later championed by Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. Standard anthologies of short fiction still reprint the Hemingwayesque story "The Blue Hotel" (1898) and the comic western, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898).

Though he died at twenty-eight from tuberculosis, Crane packed an enormous amount into a short life. His father was an eminent clergyman and he grew up in a Methodist family; the Bible seems to have been the chief reading of the household. At Lafayette College and Syracuse University, from neither of which he graduated, Crane preferred playing baseball to studying. After he became a young reporter, he quickly adopted the dashing, romantic life expected of a newspaperman. He wrote about the slums and slept in a New York flophouse, traveled out to the still wild west, escaped pursuit from Mexican bandits, nearly drowned after a shipwreck off the coast of Florida, covered civil unrest in Cuba and war in Greece, and even entered into a common-law marriage with the former madam of the Hotel de Dream bordello, eventually settling down with her in a country house in England. At Brede Place, his neighbors and admirers included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and, not least, H. G. Wells, who, in his novel Boon, declared that Crane was "die best writer of English for the last half century"

While his fiction and life are more or less well known, Crane's highly original poetry remains something of a sport, an anomaly, often mocked in its time and never easily categorized. Usually regarded as a harbinger of Imagism and sometimes thought to have been influenced by Emily Dickinson, the poems in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind (1899) are seldom more than a page long. Eschewing rhyme and obvious meter, the best of them avoid the usual gewgaws of late nineteenth-century verse, leaving nothing but an oracular power. Sometimes the verbal starkness and the frequent use of paradox call to mind Biblical parables or Zen riddles or the kind of sardonic observations we associate with Crane's contemporary, Ambrose Bierce. Excepting the keepsake album sentiments of a love sequence entitled "Intrigue" in War is Kind, there is almost nothing dated about any of diem. …

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