*written while waiting in the main library for the clock to strike eleven so I didn’t have to pay for parking*
In the wake of a growth-filled and way-too-quick first year of college, I didn’t think that a second year had the capacity to constitute more growth or to go by any more quickly. But boy was I wrong on both accounts. Comparing this year to last, I grew exponentially more and it went by exponentially quicker. Thus, two things are needless to say: sophomore year achieves the impossible, and I could never accurately express all that I’ve learned this year. But I wanted to share this one thing that I’m learning right now that I keep thinking about and is so crazy relatable and important that I couldn’t help but share. So here we go.
The more I study literature, regardless of the time period or country of origin, the more I become aware of its reactionary qualities. As in that thing that things do when other things happen. Ugh, I explain it better in this one. But anyway, writers react to things. And this fact becomes so obvious when you read a lot of one writer: aka all I did this year. You should see my Amazon Prime “Your Orders” page from the beginning of this semester. It consisted of all the works of James Joyce sans Finnegan’s Wake and six single-poet anthologies. Reading titles that start with “The Complete Poems of…,” you best believe I learned a whole heck of a lot about very specific things.
And one of those specific things is a poet named Hart Crane. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s okay. Before this year, I also didn’t know you could call your kid a misspelled version of a four-arteried organ. But if you want to know a little bit more than you did five minutes ago about life and an American guy who tried, I insist you read on.
Hart Crane, or Harold Hart Crane, was born in September of 1899 in rural mid-West USofA. But, like most of us, Crane had New-York-City-sized dreams (both dreams of living in the city and big dreams in general, naturally). Crane dreamed of relating two things together that were as distant as the Empire State Building is tall or the Brooklyn Bridge is long. And this is exactly what he set out and did: wielding the Brooklyn Bridge in his pen-hand, he set out to bring the past up to the present, bring the south up to the north, while feeling the tension of his suspension and straddling the water separating Manhattan from the world.
An important and relevant name you might recognize is T. S. Eliot. Believe it or not, Eliot was born in 1889, not even a whole year before our beloved Hart. And the reason I say “believe it or not” is because T. S. Eliot had just a few different ideas from Crane. Although born in America, Eliot didn’t live in the US during the peak years of his career. In fact, he became a citizen of Great Britain before he turned 40.
The reason I mentioned the bit about reactionary literature before is twofold: I want to relate it to Eliot and to Crane, in two very related ways.
Firstly, Eliot is a post-Great War writer. His extensive, and even more extensive than we can understand, as poet Ezra Pound cut a huge hunk of out of the finished product, and epitomizing poem The Waste Land is in direct reaction to the first World War. The place out of which Eliot is writing is desolate. Millions are dead. Nothing makes sense. Not even language works anymore. I wouldn’t suggest reading TWL unless you like to be utterly confused and lose all hope of ever amounting to anything. It’s daunting and hopeless, just like the world of a post-war Europe Eliot saw out his Harvard-educated and atheistic window.
But, insert Hart, a reactor to The Waste Land. Crane was reading Eliot’s poem and saying “nope, that’s not it, at all” (if you get what I did there, you’re my soulmate). Crane’s world was different from Eliot’s Waste Land. Crane didn’t see desolation; he saw something completely different.
We make our meek adjustments,Contented with such random consolationsAs the wind depositsIn slithered and too ample pockets.For we can still love the world, who findA famished kitten on the step, and knowRecesses for it from the fury of the street,Or warm torn elbow coverts.
—Crane, “Chaplinesque,” 1933
Crane, in the first stanza of the above quoted text, creates a picture of Modernity as he knows it: a people making “meek adjustments”, rather than big changes, a people “contented with” randomness and anonymity and “too ample pockets” rather than purpose and pockets filled with hope, money, or something, anything.
BUT, there’s always a but with Crane. BUT, he says with the second stanza, kittens exist!!! You know how sometimes a stray kitten randomly appears on your doorstep? That happens sometimes! We can still find hope in the world, or “love the world” because there’s always a chance that something great will happen amidst “the fury of the street,” the madness and hopelessness of modernity.
Thus, CRANE SAYS ELIOT’S IDEA OF THE WORLD AS A WASTE LAND IS TOO SIMPLE. DEEMING THE WORLD ALL BAD IS TOO EASY. Nobody can say, “Woe is me, all is lost,” because all is not lost! All is only partly lost. Rather, all is lost and all is not lost at the same time.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can all be lost but also not be lost? How can the world be completely good and completely bad? How can kittens exist in the “fury of the street”? And how I would answer those questions is this: that’s exactly the point. That’s exactly Crane’s point. We can’t deem the world all one thing or all the other thing. We have to learn how to be okay with, and actually thrive in, the reality of two things that can’t coexist as coexisting.
To quote Crane directly, “There is the world dimensional for / those untwisted by the love of things / irreconcilable…”
In other words, if you don’t get twisted up by holding one thing in one hand and the diametrically opposed thing in the other, the world will start to look like something for you. The world will take on dimension, even. “So,” Crane is saying to Eliot, “your world must be pretty flat.”
The way Crane posits this idea is so cool. He takes the thing he sees outside of his NYC apartment window, the Brooklyn Bridge, and declares its reality as holding up two diametrically opposed ideas, the island of Manhattan and Brooklyn, to preserve the metaphor. Then, he states the only way the bridge can do this is through the tension implicit in its suspension technology (s/o Roebling). To hold up two opposing things, it’s going to be uncomfortable; there’s going to be tension. In order to bridge the gap, you’ve got to be willing to strain yourself.
Now, let’s apply this ish.
Seeing the world as one thing or another is too easy: black or white is too easy, there’s so much grey it’s insane; good or bad is too easy, decisions are hard; racist or not-racist is too easy, systemic racism rears itself in our day-to-day more than we realize; similar or different is too easy, let’s talk to people more; beautiful or ugly is too easy, have you ever seen Uga X?
All these dichotomies are too easy. The world and all of its idiosyncrasies cannot be manifested in one either/or statement. It’s not even a both/and, for the most part. It’s a nuanced, complex, hard, and beautiful place to be. But, it’s the worthy thing. Actually, it’s probably the worthiest thing.
So let’s stop pretending we have it all figured out, life is so much freer and deeper when we don’t.