R. W. B. Lewis: On "Black Tambourine"

When he wrote "Black Tambourine," Crane was himself hobnobbing with Negroes in a cellar – Negro chefs and waiters, in fact, in the basement of his father’s tea-room and candy shop in Cleveland; he was also busy composing an article on Sherwood Anderson in which he expressed the hope that Anderson might some day "handle the Negro in fiction." Crane’s feelings, however, were mixed. A Negro had been dismissed by Mr. Crane to make room for his son; and, as Philip Horton [author of a 1937 biography of Crane] tells us, "It became a certainty in [Crane’s] mind that his father wished to make a humiliating comparison by this move." Crane associated himself, and by extension the modern poet, with the Negro, as victims of comparable persecution and exclusion; the world closed its doors equally on both – such, anyhow, had been Crane’s experience. …

… The verbal element, as Crane called it elsewhere, is dominant here. I have mentioned the revision of "Mark an old judgment on the world" into "Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door." This was a move toward Crane’s characteristically compressed line, in which, by packing the rhythmical space with "positive" (as against neutral) language, Crane could allow words to exert their maximum effect upon each other. Meanwhile, what began as almost a sociological report ("Black Tambourine" is the most overtly socially minded of Carne’s lyric poems) becomes, in the musical sense, transposed by the supple play of allusion. Perhaps the most telling example of the poem’s verbal element is the final phrase, "a carcass quick with flies." "Carcass" is used to designate the body of an animal; and also the body of a human being, when the human being is regarded as an animal. Normally, moreover, it means the body of a dead animal. The central human figure in "Black Tambourine" is made to resemble an animal corpse, attacked by flies, not only because the world sometimes regards him so (when it does not regard him – Negro and poet – in the stereotype of the tambourine player); but also because, within the poem, the black man’s cellar is conjoined with the poet’s grave, to the point that the gnats and roaches that swarm about the living figure seem like flies buzzing at a corpse. It is just possible that a closing twist of meaning is intended, one that would accord with slight hints earlier in the poem; namely, that the Negro-poet, however brutally treated, is nonetheless alive – "quick" – after all.


Title R. W. B. Lewis: On "Black Tambourine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study
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