Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Communicative Difficulty in General and "Difficult" Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower"

Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Communicative Difficulty in General and "Difficult" Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower"

Article excerpt

  New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual articulation.
  And while I feel that my work includes a more consistent extension of
  traditional elements than many contemporary poets are capable of
  appraising, I realize that I am utilizing the gifts of the past as
  instruments principally, and that the voice of the present, if it is
  to be known, must be caught at the risk of speaking in idioms
  sometimes shocking to scholars and historians of logic. Language has
  built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.
  --Hart Crane, "General Aims and Theories"

  I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy
  ought really to be written as a poetic composition. It must, as it
  seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking
  belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing
  myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would  like to be able
  to do.
  --Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

  I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze ...
  --Horace

Here we are talking about Hart Crane dead long ago, in the year of my birth, 1932. Hart Crane's poem "The Broken Tower," beginning with his title, engages an ancient figure--that of a monument which, by its ironic unbreakability, challenges death's obliteration of persons. In the classical poetic tradition, the work of art--whatever else it does--is always also engaged in this one task: overcoming the erasure of the name of a person by speaking it, doing fame by means of language. ("Fame," fama from L. fari, Gk. phanaito, to speak of absence with the effect of presence.)

To bring home, by means of an example, this classical scene of the work of art set to work I remind you of a poem by the Roman poet Horace. The poem is conventionally called "The Poet's Immortal Fame." Horace boasts that he will remain by reason of his poems--his monumentum--forever part of the human conversation, specifically the death-blocked conversation between the dead and the living. Hart Crane (or any poet) reminds us that the death-blocked conversation between the dead and the living is identical to the conversation between the living and the living, which is enabled and blocked in life by our unmingling bodies. Horace asserts that, by his work as poet, he has effected two things that cannot happen: first, that what he has made is indestructible (but we know that every thing is destructible); second, that he, the maker, will not "entirely" die (non omnis moriar)--but everyone entirely dies.

Poetry--and only poetry--contributes to human life precisely what the human will cannot (as we know, if we know anything) otherwise obtain. Not by reason of what the poem says, but by reason of the fact that poetry is the artistic form of language. By means of the artistic form of language, humanity--something of one nature (subject to death)--becomes capable of thinking by means of something of another nature (not subject to death). Poetry is the most valuable thing we have, but radically untrue.

Here, in context of Hart Cranes "The Broken Tower" (as an introduction to it), is Horace's poem about the unbreakable tower--the artistic form of language, poesis.

  I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than
  the Pyramid's royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north
  wind can destroy or countless chain of years and the ages' flight. I
  shall not altogether die [non omnis moriar--one notices in the omnis
  the poet's anxiety about the truth of the boast], but a mighty part of
  me shall escape the death-goddess ["Libitina," goddess of corpses]. On
  and on I shall grow ever fresh with the glory of aftertime. So long as
  the Pontiff climbs the Capitol with the silent Vestal [The institution
  of language across time, identical with the sacred, is contingent upon
  the state], I, risen high from low estate where Aufidus thunders and
  where Daunus in a parched land once ruled o'er a peasant folk [Hart
  Crane's equivalent was Cleveland, Ohio], shall be famed for having
  been the first to adapt Aeolian song [Greek high cultural poetic
  styles--Crane also was also a conscious formalist] to Italian verse. … 
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