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Voyages - I -- Hart Crane

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney:
(Poem #1597) Voyages - I
 Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
 Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
 They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
 And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
 Gaily digging and scattering.

 And in answer to their treble interjections
 The sun beats lightning on the waves,
 The waves fold thunder on the sand;
 And could they hear me I would tell them:

 O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
 Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
 By time and the elements; but there is a line
 You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
 Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
 Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
 The bottom of the sea is cruel.
-- Hart Crane
Comment:

The archives have strangely neglected Hart Crane; there's been just one of
his poems before.  He died very young (32) and his oeuvre is small -- the
Complete Poems of Hart Crane is just 250 pages -- but still, it seems weird
to ignore one of the seminal poets of the first half of the 20th century.

Crane is one of those people (Sylvia Plath is another, Rimbaud too) where
knowing the poet's biography hugely changes the way you read the poetry.
But ignore what you know about HC for a moment (if you know anything at all,
that is), because this is a great poem even without reading Crane's life
into it.  I love the way this poem captures the fundamental innocence of
children playing on the beach, while simultaneously pointing out the
inherent lack of innocence in the scene.  Even the kids' play itself is less
than innocent: "conquest," "scattering," "crumble," etc.; and they're
playing with sticks "bleached by time and the elements."  The surf and the
sun, normally pleasant images, are transformed by Crane into a thunderstorm.
The third stanza, of course, gives you the reason for all this
transformation of a happy day at the beach into a grim foreboding:  "there
is a line you must not cross," for the sea will seduce you and then drown
you.

"The bottom of the sea is cruel" has a grim certainty about it that
contrasts mightily with the fluidity of all the imagery that comes before
it.  It's almost like the poem is betraying you, in the same way that the
speaker says that the sea will.

Is the speaker of the poem being overprotective?  Overly worried about these
kids?  How, after all, can he know from experience that "the bottom of the
sea is cruel"?  Or is the sea being used as a metaphor for lost innocence in
a larger sense?  I love the ambiguities in this poem.

And then there's the fact that when Crane wrote the "Voyages" sequence (this
poem and five others that follow it) he was having an affair with a Danish
sailor.  "There is a line you must not cross"?  Oodles of ink have been used
up, in academic circles, arguing about what "Voyages" might or might not
have to say on the subject of homosexuality.  And then there's the eerie
fact that Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship . . . You see what I
mean about how the biography changes the poem.

--Mark

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Amit Batra said...

let me take liberty to repeat Mark's words, I loved the ambiguities in the
poem... tells a lot about the poet, the way he puts tender and intense
feelings right next to each other, and keeps switching between the two...
it seems to come from a sensitive and maybe lonely person, humble person
who's been sad for too long... appreciates bright sunny side of life, finds
it beautiful, but can't help to ignore cruelty inherent to nature... hope
he found peace. great poetry, thanks minstrels.

amit

Bryan Alexander said...

From the very beginning of this poem, the children do not play but flay
each other. Brightly striped creatures in "nature" are often poisonous
or they sharply prick. So from reading the first lines I began to expect
that a wounded person was about to tell my fairy-loving, mermaid-loving
self how wounded I can expect to be after I'm left lonely in the
"endless blue wine," or on the cold hill side, or in an absurd wood.
Bryan Alexander

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