Book Review
Sunday, September 2, 2012
What Does Hart Crane's "Key West" Really Mean?

By Mark Howell

"Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters"

Library of America, $29.20

Before he fell from the stern of the U.S.S. Orizaba several miles off Key West, never to be seen again, the great American poet Hart Crane planned to produce a third collection of poetry he called "Key West: An Island Sheaf." But Crane himself never did make it to Key West.

And the actual poem in the sheaf titled "Key West" is so obscure -- in the sense of difficult -- that it has remained just about incomprehensible.

But not quite. Eighty years after Crane made his fateful leap into our waters at the age of 32, maybe it's time to take a fresh look at "Key West" and find out what it really means for us.

Harold Hart Crane's father made a fortune in the candy business; he originally held the patent for Life Savers but sold his interest just before they became popular. Born near Cleveland, Ohio, Hart was sent to live with his maternal grandmother at the age of 9. He shared with his mother an emotional instability and at 16 he attempted suicide on the Isle of Pines off Cuba, at a property owned by his mother's family.

In 1917, after his parents divorced, Crane dropped out of high school, headed straight for New York City and started to drink. Working as a cub reporter in Manhattan, he soon became known for his "scrolls of silver snowy sentences." The word sounds he chose for his first collection, "White Buildings," he said, were "echoes, options, gateways to all kinds of meanings." Here's a line from "O Carib Isle:" "Slagged of the hurricane I, cast within its flow, congeal by afternoons here, satin and vacant." Or this from "Lachrymae Christi:" "Whitely, while benzene rinsings from the moon dissolve all but the windows of the mills...."

The poet e. e. cummings claimed Crane's mind was "no bigger than a pin but it didn't matter; he was a born poet." Tennessee Williams, admitting he could "hardly understand a single line" of Crane's, still wanted to he buried at sea at the "point most nearly determined as the point at which Hart Crane gave himself back."

Crane's drinking led to alternating bouts of depression and elation. He spoke of suicide and is said to have made a number of wills. He began a liaison with Peggy Baird, the soon-to-be ex-wife of his friend, the critic and editor Malcolm Cowley. Peggy joined Crane in Mexico when the Cowleys agreed to divorce.

She and Crane decided to sail back to the U.S. aboard the passenger steamship Orizaba from Veracruz. In the early hours of April 27, 1932, after a stop in Havana, Crane became emotionally distressed and told Peggy, "I'm not going to make it, dear." Somewhere between 30 to 60 miles off Key West, Crane climbed over the railing, took off his coat, folded it neatly, then raised himself on his toes and dropped back from the railing. Witnesses said they heard him cry, "Goodbye, everybody!" His body was never recovered.

What Crane left behind was "Key West: An Island Sheaf." It was literally a sheaf, a file folder complete with a table of contents and an epigram from William Blake: "The starry floor, The wat'ry shore, Is given thee 'til the break of day."

The poet Mark Doty has said that, although Crane was never actually here, "he loved Key West" because it was, by all reports, the opposite of Ohio. It is possible that, in his imagination, Key West was a high-risk café to Crane, a potent playground packed with people of every kind, the idea of which became a kind of lifebelt to him, a place to keep him afloat on waves of dissipation.

Poetry, of course, is supposed to take us where prose will not go, but it may be necessary to use plain sentences in order to explain the four verses of "Key West," some of the strangest lines Hart Crane ever penned.

This, anyway, is your critic's best effort at bringing the poem's luminously lunar meaning to the light of every day:

Here has my salient faith annealed me.

Out of the valley, past the ample crib

To skies impartial, that do not disown me

Nor claim me, either, by Adam's spine -- nor rib.

(Meaning: Here in Key West, the poet's leaping faith has toughened him, who sprang from the uterus into a big crib and thence into the real world beyond the Garden of Eden.)

The oar plash, and the meteorite's white arch

Concur with wrist and bicep. In the moon

That now has sunk I strike a single march

To heaven or hades -- to an equally frugal noon.

Meaning: The splash of the oar and the arc of a falling meteorite work in unison with the rower. Under a gone moon, the poet now heads either to heaven or to hell, both under a meager sun.)

Because these millions reap a dead conclusion

Need I presume the same fruit of my bone

As draws them towards a doubly mocked confusion

Of apish nightmares into steel-strung stone?

Meaning: Since the millions of dead can have reached no other conclusion than death, why should the poet need go through life's ancient days of horror and into the future days of the Brooklyn Bridge? -- "steel-strung stone" being the object of Crane's most famous poem, "The Bridge.")

O, steel and stone! But gold was, scarcity before.

And here is water, and a little wind....

There is no breath of friends and no more shore

Where gold has not been sold and conscience tinned.

(Meaning: We can sing of steel and stone but gold has always been around, and before gold not much. Here at least is water and some wind, yet there are no people and no places left in the world untouched by how gold has coated the conscience.)

In other words: We are born strong. By noontime in our lives we are well at sea, securely headed toward either heaven or hell. So why go through all of this if it's just the same old past and future? Because we are snagged by the gold. Yet here in Key West, however, "is water, and a little wind...."