Friday, December 12, 2014

Hart Crane and other Gay poets

I did not intend to start any new study projects, just focus on poetry, read a bit of criticism, write mostly. In the course of checking my interpretation of Hart Crane’s “Legend” I found it dealt with in a Yale lecture – lecture number 13. This morning I scrolled all the way back to Lecture number one and found that the lecturer is Langdon Hammer. I checked him on Amazon and discovered he seems to have an interest in getting certain gay poets their due. He edited the American Library of American editions of Hart Crane and May Swenson. In the spring of next year he has a book coming out on James Merrill: The Amazon description of Hammer’s book is “The first biography of one of the most important poets in the second half of the twentieth century, whose life story is unparalleled in its narrative interest.

“The story of James Merrill (1926-1995) is that of a young man escaping, but inevitably reproducing, the energies and obsessions of glamorous, powerful parents (his father founded Merrill Lynch); of a gay man inventing his identity against a shifting social and sexual backdrop; and of a brilliantly gifted poet testing the redemptive potential of his art. We see how Merrill, freed from having to work for a living, made his life itself a kind of work. After Amherst and a period of adventure in Italy, he returned to the New York art world of the 1950s (he met W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Larry Rivers) and began publishing his poems, novels, and plays. In 1953, he fell in love with budding writer David Jackson, who remained his companion for forty years while they explored "boys and bars" in Greece and elsewhere. At the same time, they were talking to the spirits of the otherworld using a Ouija board, which became an improbable source of poetic inspiration for Merrill. In his many collections of poetry and the candid letters and diaries that enrich every page of this deliciously readable life, Merrill created a prismatic art of multiple perspectives. Holding that life and art together in a complex, evolving whole, Langdon Hammer illuminates Merrill's "chronicles of love & loss" and the remarkable personal journey they record.”

I was familiar with Hart Crane, but I haven’t read much of either May Swenson or James Merrill – can’t bring a single thing to mind – so I sent for collections of their poetry. As I mentioned in regard to the poetry of Lowell and Sexton, I agree with those who disapproved of the embarrassingly inappropriate nature of some of their poems. If that sounds like an implied censorship of sorts, so be it. Following Gadamer, no doubt I have a preconceived (prejudice) regarding what is appropriate or inappropriate in a poem. I don’t have the impression (I haven’t read him in several years) that Hart Crane crosses the (my) line. I had a problem with him for other reasons. As Langdon Hammer said in Lecture 13, Crane is difficult. I didn’t mind the difficulty but he often seemed to jumble his poetic images, references, symbols illogically – or maybe I didn’t have the patience to deconstruct all of them.

In the case of Merrill my apprehensive is about his spending the last part of his life writing spiritualistic poems sometimes using an Ouija board. I was willing to buy a used copy of his collected poems however to find out if I agreed with Hammer’s assessment of him as one of the most important poets of last half of the 20th century. I expect not to find May Swenson as challenging, but I’ll find out.

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