March 2016

Patrick James Dunagan


The Bridge: Uncollected Version, from Periodicals and Anthologies, 1927-1930 by Hart Crane

The Bridge: Uncollected, edited by poet Ben Mazer, brings together all sections of Hart Crane's book-length poem The Bridge as originally published in periodicals and anthologies prior to the Black Sun Press and Horace Liveright editions of 1930. Two sections, "Quaker Hill" and "Atlantis," which did not appear in print previous to the Black Sun edition, published just two months prior to the Liveright, are restored to this edition. While the earlier published versions of the poem's sections prove to differ only rather slightly in nature with the finished work there's nevertheless value in simply having a new edition of Crane's phenomenal work readily available, and Mazer handily sees fit to include a compact yet thorough set of critical comments, containing supplementary firsthand remarks upon the poem by Crane and his peers.

An immediate notable difference between the early texts of the poem and The Bridge as published is the absence of Crane's brief side commentaries, which he interjects into the margins in several of the sections. No doubt these were added by Crane in the final stages of preparing the manuscript for book publication, yet one instance of many where he's seen clearly taking advantage of every opportunity to enhance the poem, endlessly revising the material. Displaying these and many other subtle additions, deletions, and alterations is the driving force behind Mazer's editing.

Among the most significant variants found here are two differing previously published versions of the "Cutty Sark" section, and acknowledgment that the original title of the section "Indiana" was actually "El Dorado," under which the poem appeared in the April 1930 issue of Poetry. Publication of "El Dorado," in fact, occurred two months after the appearance of the Black Sun Press edition of The Bridge, appearing simultaneously with the Liveright edition; expected notice for both editions is given in Crane's bio note for Poetry. This title change is again another last minute decision made by Crane. Although critical works and biographies on Crane have mentioned this sort of tinkering, the two versions of "Cutty Sark" and the alternate title of "Indiana" have not heretofore been widely published or noted in previous volumes of Crane's work, including the Fordham University Press 2011 annotated edition of The Bridge, edited by Lawrence Kramer.

Between the two versions of "Cutty Sark," aside from some alternate spellings and realignment of a few lines, only a differing epigraph truly jars the already familiar eye. Crane had originally gone with the biblical "And he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea," from the Book of Isaiah, before settling on the arguably far more fitting "O, the navies old and oaken, / O, the Temeraire no more!" from the poem "Temeraire" in Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces. Melville's poem, after all, laments the shift from older "oaken" battleships, of which the Temeraire was one, to ironclad warships and the accompanying situation facing an older generation of sailors amid other coming technological changes of his day. This theme suits "Cutty Sark" well, primarily detailing, as it does, the descriptive narrative of an old sailor, "eyes pressed through green glass," who, "a whaler once," declares: "[T]hat damned white Arctic killed my time." While it also aligns well within larger historical frameworks developed across The Bridge as a whole.

Mazer more or less acknowledges the lack of earthshattering revelations to be discovered here. For instance, he describes how Crane's alterations as found in these early versions, "sift out into many a fine filament of gold -- in the form of a previously unencountered phrase, of a different choice of word, of a line or passage marked by Crane's initial and freshest impulses." Yet, admittedly, his passion for Crane's "genius" is shared by many. Even if examples of such last-minute "impulses" of Crane's revealed here prove to be rather spare and scattered, it's best to put aside the debatable question of how much value such "filament[s] of gold" ultimately have. The most dedicated of readers are well served regardless.

The wisely included opening assortment of critical comments assures this edition will find a deserved spot on any ready reference shelf focused upon twentieth-century poetry. This extremely condensed mini-spectacle of bibliophilism presents a chronological spread of documental commentary which has long been relied upon for biographies and critical studies of Crane. Mazer judiciously dips into Crane's personal correspondence, as well as published reviews by R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters, to evoke feeling for how Crane and his peers conceived of the poem at the time of its development, from earliest conceptualization through subsequent publication. For the most part these offerings are short extracts. One lengthier instance is Crane's October 12, 1927 in-depth, amazingly clear and orderly summation of the poem's progress to his benefactor Otto Kahn. This letter, as is true with every item Mazer excerpts, has long been a cherished and much-referenced document of Crane's powerful poetic mind. It leaves no doubt as to the high quality of his organizational abilities and his hoped-for aims with the poem. There's no question that the astonishing depth of vision presented in The Bridge was achieved by way of pragmatic ordering, just as much or more than any rhapsodic inspiration.

There was certainly nothing small-minded about Crane's aim with the project, as he explained to Kahn, "What I am really handling, you see, is the Myth of America." He was going after nothing less than successfully composing the ultimate American poem of the Modern Era. A poem composed of symphonic integrity without the fragmentary nature of, say, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land or Pound's Cantos. Critics ever since have debated his success and/or failure, often enough along the way disassembling the poem to bolster their own reading; raising up those sections they esteem as containing its most praiseworthy merits while discarding those they deem as missteps taken by Crane, usually attributing the latter to his robust reputation for drinking and wild desultory behavior. Mazer doesn't wade into this fray. This edition's goals are not to impose any one reading upon Crane's poem, but rather to peel back the finished layers, even if just a tad, encouraging renewed notice of the "authority and spectacle of [Crane's] genius" as evident even amidst the minutest examples of its workings.

The Bridge: Uncollected Version, from Periodicals and Anthologies, 19271930 by Hart Crane, edited by Ben Mazer
MadHat Press
ISBN: 978-1941196199
116 pages