Louis Untermeyer: On Hart Crane

It is against what seems to many of the young elite to be an undisciplined emotionalism that the latest generation is revolting. Seeing the immediate past and much of the present as a welter of ecstasies and inchoate naturalism, they respond to the full swing of the inevitable pendulum. They are all – or at least their manifestoes are – for a new intellectual discipline, for severity of structure, for the subjection of material to the design. Form is the word most often on the lips of these younger writers; they speak of the mathematics, the architecture of literature, of mass and planes, of suspensions, dissonances and modulations – of an abstract form, as a musician, despising the theatricalism of opera, might speak of absolute music. It is primarily a turning away from naturalism, a progression – or, as may be contended, a retrogression – to French ideas of a still earlier generation. Our newest "new men," with their aristocratic malaises seeking decorative avenues of escape, may well become a set of belated American Parnassians. But there is this difference in the two periods: Frenchmen, since Flaubert, have adopted the theory that the purpose of art is to conceal art; the young American doctrinaires – and I am thinking of the more determined secessionists – believe that the function of art is to reveal art, carefully, consciously. This, it seems to me, explains their preoccupation with verbal craftsmanship and deliberate technic. The word aesthetic does not have for them, as it had for us, the connotations of Oscar Wilde and the delicately decadent nineties; they speak of a rigorous and crystallized aestheticism.

How far, one asks, can such a program carry them? … When emotion is minimalized does not the artist suffer from a lassitude of the creative faculty? … If instant is repudiated or impoverished can the intelligence be a sufficient substitute? Will not intellectual subtleties and nuances of form ten toward the very artistic decadence from which we have revolted, the decadence that appraises the values of life chiefly as aesthetic values?

It is too early to look for answers. But there are portents which, in themselves, suggest certain replies. … The artist on fire to make something is concerned first with what he wishes to express, second with the method of expression. When the order is reversed, when the manner assumes primary importance, the resulty is technically adroit, fastidious, often sensitive, but more often precious and artificial. This is the true minor note and it is here that decadence begins. The over-nice preoccupation with shades, the elaborate analysis of a spent emotion, the false emphasis on half-tones lead inevitably to verbal legerdemain and a series of elliptical vagaries. This tendency has already found a similarity of speech in the language of many of the "emerging" intellectuals. Highly euphuistic, their work seems determined to make four syllables blossom where only one grew before. It is essentially an intellectual circumlocution that fascinates many of the most recent experimenters. One of the youngest, Hart Crane, in an effort to avoid such a commonplace as "darkening dusk," speaks of

the graduate opacities of evening.

It is these cold victories of the intellect that point to their own defeat. It is a return to the lifeless classicism which they would be first to repudiate, a return with only a slight difference: instead of a literature written by scholars for scholars, the new mode seems to be attempting a poetry by artists for artists only. Scorning the old-fashioned prosody, they are fashioning a diction which is no less stilted, a new-fashioned rhetoric which, in spite of its scientific patois, is no less rhetorical.

Here one can chart the possible descent: artificiality of language, excitation of imagery, tenuous thoughts, obscurantism. It is only those who lack rich creative blood who lay stress on equivocal tropes and spend their slight energy exorcising the cliché while worshipping the nuance. Erudite Gratioanos may surround their emotional poverty with verbal elegances, but their reasons "are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them; and when you have found them they are not worth the search." The great workers are essentially simple and direct, never "secret or obscure"; as Emerson said, "they never seem to condescend."

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Title Louis Untermeyer: On Hart Crane Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Louis Untermeyer Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry Since 1900
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