Poet's Pick April 5
Hart Crane: "Chaplinesque"
Selected by Matthew Cooperman
National Poetry Month 2013

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Matthew Cooperman's Poetry Month Pick, April 5, 2013

"Chaplinesque"
by Hart Crane (1899–1932)

We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart;
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

 

* Necessary Pirouettes: On Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque," Matthew Cooperman
Musical, quick, elegiac, and deeply empathetic to its subject, Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque" is a classic poem of his middle period. There's not much early, and no late—he dies at 33, jumping off a steamer returning from Mexico in 1932—but the poem's brevity and relative clarity is of a different order from the highly mythic and metaphoric last work, the book-length poem The Bridge. "Chaplinesque" moves by two principal means: an irregular but haunting iambic pentameter, and a process of  identification, the little man against the world. These evolve through a delicate tension that places light against dark, comedy against tragedy, us vs. them.

Essentially a movie montage of Chaplin (think City Lights, Modern Times), the poem tramps through the streets of the city by way of point of view. Each stanza structures the encounter. It is importantly "we" who make our "meek" and "random" adjustments to the vicissitudes of "the world," and it is "we," in our humble, ground-level humility, who are able to see the "kitten on the step," a haunting image of existential modernity. This is the strange symbolism of the poem; Crane's narrative provides a scene for a symbolic gathering, what Crane himself called "the logic of metaphor." By the third stanza we are decidedly alongside him. Or alongside Crane and Chaplin, swept up in a theatrical dance that suspends, or perhaps allows, sentimentality, "surprise." As such, a complex "we" preserves, even inspires, in the face of Time's "puckered index," a fundamental innocence that resists mortality.

It is important to place Hart Crane's writing in context. Coming of age in later Modernism, he writes to and against the cataclysms of World War I. The great poem of the era is Eliot's "The Wasteland." Crane's response—most largely in The Bridge—is to push back against both the bleak endgame of Eliot's exhausted civilization, and its misreading of American character. Crane finds his avatar in Chaplin, the dominant cultural figure of the period, and an artist who both celebrates the excesses of the roaring 20s, and anticipates the despair of the subsequent decade. The poem's dialectical dance is a strange prophecy of the "slithered and too ample pockets" of American identity.

And yet, and yet; the fourth stanza is the turn: "... these fine collapses are not lies / More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane. / Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise." Chaplin's signature move is taken to be a defense. The dispossessed require a dodge, something to push back against the "game of smirks" in the final stanza. But it is not simply an "enterprise." The key word is "obsequies," colloquially an evasion, but also a death rite, a funereal procession. Our antics hide and provide a means of resistance. Here the poem shifts to second person, a surprise address that reveals complex motives in the poem: "We can evade you, and all else but the heart; / What blame to us if the heart live on." What is at stake is indeed the heart, true feelings, art and love. Hear the pun on Crane's given name as he stakes his writing on immortality. But who is you in the poem? God is one possibility, or the Muse, or oneself, and most certainly the reader, but a more localized recipient might also be the beloved. For Crane, that rises as the homosexual other, a coded spectre that carries with it an ever-deepening sense of identification. The artist, the dispossessed, the beggar, the brutalized, the innocent—these swirl as a complex of alterity. The poem spins yet again on Chaplin's cane, both a recursion to the identity of "we" and an enlargement of that strange symbol of the kitten in the alley.

Thus life and love and art are seen, in the fifth stanza, as a game. It is the old dance of comedy and tragedy. Through the poetic agency of "the moon" we stand revealed: "we have seen... in lonely alleys make / a grail of laughter of an empty ash can." Seen reveals scene, the alley, a place of dispossession; loss, becomes a kind of crucible of being. If we find ourselves painfully there, we also find something out: "through all gaiety and quest" our tragic isolation is exposed as something holy. Happiness and sadness, laughter and tears, alone and together, these opposites depend on each other, are necessary for a full life. The "meek adjustments" of the opening become, in art and love and close reading, an ability to feel and think with the heart. Crane gives us his, something multitudinous and American. It is a daring of our collective humanity to listen, to hear that "kitten in the wilderness" who is both I and thou.


About Matthew Cooperman:
Matthew Cooperman's poetry collections include Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move, DaZE, and A Sacrificial Zinc.


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