Whose Words These Are (15): Bloom’s Hart Crane

We’re in the “living labyrinth” of Harold Bloom’s astonishing memory here.

The great sage of New Haven is walking us through the dark, dense maze of his first and favorite poet, Hart Crane (1899 – 1932).

Take this as a sort of companion piece to go with Helen Vendler’s reflections on her own “closest poet,” Wallace Stevens.

There’s a preview, too, of Harold Bloom’s next big book, coming in Spring, 2010, just before his 80th birthday. Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence will reconsider his famous grand argument in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) about poets and their precursors.

But the joy of this conversation for me is the generous, melting demonstration of Bloom’s theory and his method — tracing (with never a glance at text or note) the spidery links from Crane’s words and images back to Melville, Yeats, Milton, Spenser, Walter Pater, and The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible; with real-life anecdotes thrown in touching Hart Crane’s friend the photographer Walker Evans, and his devotee the playwright Tennessee Williams. By the end of Harold Bloom’s living-room performance, one of Hart Crane’s most famous pieces, “The Broken Tower” makes a kind of music — madly, deeply in tune with Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.” Listen for Professor Bloom’s laughing indulgence when I tell him that, of course, Harold, the living labyrinth is you! “A nice trope, my boy.”

Here, for before and after readings, is what Bloom calls Crane’s “death poem”:

The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn

Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell

Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn

From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps

Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway

Antiphonal carillons launched before

The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;

And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave

Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score

Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping

The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!

Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-

O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love, its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)

But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored

Of that tribunal monarch of the air

Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word

In wounds pledges once to hope – cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me

No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower

As flings the question true?) -or is it she

Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes

My veins recall and add, revived and sure

The angelus of wars my chest evokes:

What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone

(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip

Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown

In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes

That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…

The commodious, tall decorum of that sky

Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

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  • Our friend, soulful deejay Tom Reney, emails from Holyoke, Massachusetts:

    What better way to begin this dreary Saturday morning in which rain is dampening the “fiery parcels” of Holyoke (arson capitol of the Commonwealth) than with your conversation with Harold? I agree, Hart Crane is a little impenetrable, all that “impacted density,” but this is illuminating both of the poetry and Bloom’s connection with Bud Powell. When Harold spoke of this with me a few years ago, he described Bud as being conversant with Crane’s poetry, which I found a bit dubious. But to hear him say here that he gave Bud a volume of the poems which he then read makes more sense. Harold also picked up on my passion for Prez, aka Lester Young, as he inscribed a copy of his then new book Hamlet: Poem Unlimited : “For Tom Reney, Another exalter of the Only true President.”

    Professor Bloom’s concluding remark with you that “Powell’s gift was too great for Powell” seems applicable to so many, but how especially true of the black creative geniuses whose lives were hobbled by racism and the neglect their work suffered in the hierarchical standing of the fine arts, not to mention the occupational restrictions that were still in force during Bud’s time and that made music virtually the only available outlet for his genius.

  • Bryon

    Magnificent Chris!!

    Cornel West and Howard Bloom within a few weeks of one another. It just doesn’t get any better than that!!!

  • Eenusch

    It’s always great to hear from Harold Bloom.

    I hope Chris will have him back to discuss religion/spirituality.

  • Larry

    When I woke up this morning, my radio was playing songs by a piano trio that disturbed me. The pianist was hammering at his ideas and playing with very little touch. Yet, through the cacophony, the brilliance of the lines (the lines) was still present. I told my wife, “This is late Bud Powell….it’s too sad to listen to this.” When the set was through, the DJ confirmed my suspicions. It was recorded late in Powell’s life in Europe.

    Listening to this podcast was a nice remedy to that experience. I’m looking forward to spending some time with Crane and Powell this weekend. Thank you Prof. Bloom, and to you Chris for opening up new avenues to listen to.

  • Malachiter

    Taking Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare course at Yale was like being tazed by Lear, so I anticipate electrocution when I see him coming back to your microphone. Hearing his conversations with you over the years, Chris, I have been annoyed at his lack of consideration for your audience, cutting off the boots of your questions, showing either base contempt or irrational praise for a given caller’s attempt to share or understand. These are dismissable complaints when weighed against the value of his reading. But do I hear the Sage of New Haven becoming less dismissive? It’s almost as if his raging against death (on our behalf) has softened into something more … communal? Or was it just the prize you dangled of allowing Bud Powell into the conversation? That Poco Loco cowbell does hold something for Harold that he doesn’t have to hold.

  • Samuel Thewlis

    I look forward to Bloom on this site more than any other. He is simply a living example of genius.

  • Potter

    Took me awhile to get here;can’t believe it’s about a year and a half. I was looking for Bloom on “The Merchant of Venice” after reading Stephen Greenblatt’s book on the play; we experienced an outstanding truly wonderful Shylock, some say the best ever, by F. Murray Abraham here in Boston. So I needed Bloom to help sort me out about my crying and laughing. (I did find him in print on that. )

    This Hart Crane conversation was formidable and will get at least another couple of go-arounds. My slim Crane volume was already out anyway. We are, the last couple of years visiting “the kids” always looking at the Brooklyn Bridge, that wind harp, and those shores and towers from the Brooklyn side. They are doing something to it now- repairing I suppose always. On the way down we marvel at the highway bridges art deco style, probably Works Progress administration. We invested in us then.

    The Bud Powell “poco loco” was an absolutely perfect “coda” here.

    Thank you so much Chris, Harold Bloom- your work is enduring~

  • Langdon Hammer

    It’s my “word” I poured, not “world.”

  • Mark

    In this sound-bytten, time-fractured world, these are the kind of interviews that count