20th Century Poetics

“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should be positively discouraged. . . . It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor”

—T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1922)

“A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm.”

—William Carlos Williams, “Against the Weather” (1939)

“out of the central mind

We make a dwelling in the evening air

In which being there together is enough.”


           —Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” 

It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today—a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration of spiritual conviction. The great mythologies of the past (including the Church) are deprived of enough façade to even launch good raillery against. Yet much of their traditions are operative still—in millions of chance combinations of related and unrelated detail, psychological references, figures of speech, precepts, etc. these are all a part of our common experience and the terms, at least partially, of that very experience when it defines or extends itself.

—Hart Crane, “General Aims and Theories,” included as an appendix in Phillip Horton’s Hart Crane, New York, 1937

“We are led to believe in a lie

When we see with not through the eye.

The impressionist creates only with his eye and for the readiest surface of the consciousness, at least relatively so. If the effect has been harmonious or even stimulating, he can stop there, relinquishing entirely to his audience the problematic synthesis of the details into terms of their own personal consciousness.

It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our “real” world as a spring-board, and to give the poem as a whole an orbit or predetermined direction of its own. I would like to establish it as free from my own personality as from any chance evaluation on the reader’s part. (This is, of course, an impossibility, but it is a characteristic worth mentioning.) Such a poem is at least a stab at a truth, and to such an extent may be differentiated from other kinds of poetry and called “absolute.” Its evocation will not be toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an “innocence” (Blake) or absolute beauty. In this condition there may be discoverable under new forms certain spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions. It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness henceforward.

As to technical considerations: the motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of expression are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings. Via this and their metaphorical inter-relationships, the entire construction of the poem is raised on the organic principle of a “logic of metaphor,” which antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension.

These dynamics often result, I’m told, in certain initial difficulties in understanding my poems. But on the other hand I find them at times the only means possible for expressing certain concepts in any forceful or direct way whatever. To cite two examples:—when in “Voyages” (II), I speak of “adagios of islands,” the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc. And it seems a much more direct and creative statement than any more logical employment of words such as “coasting slowly through the islands,” besides ushering in a whole world of music. Similiarly, in “Faustus and Helen” (II) the speed and tense altitude of an aeroplane are much better suggested by the idea of “nimble blue plateaus”—implying the aeroplane and its speed against a contrast of stationary elevated earth. Although the statement is pseudo in relation to formal logic—it is completely logical in relation to the truth of the imagination, and there is expressed a concept of speed and space that could not be handled so well in other terms. . . . New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual articulation. . . . Language has built towers and bridges but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.”

—Hart Crane, from “General Aims and Theories,” 1937

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